Illinois men’s basketball is searching for a go-to player amid roster turnover

Arguably the most interesting part of John Groce’s press conference Monday was when he admitted he was now a “Wizard of Oz” expert.

The Illinois men’s basketball head coach recently took his sons to see the iconic film at an IMAX theater in Savoy. The movie inspired Groce to tell his team, and namely the five incoming freshmen, that “this isn’t Kansas anymore.” Groce was referring to the fact that all college basketball players Arguably the most interesting part of John Groce’s press conference Monday was when he admitted he was now a “Wizard of Oz” expert.

The Illinois men’s basketball head coach recently took his sons to see the iconic film at an IMAX theater in Savoy. The movie inspired Groce to tell his team, and namely the five incoming freshmen, that “this isn’t Kansas anymore.” Groce was referring to the fact that all college basketball players were stars in their high school days and maybe didn’t need to work as hard to succeed. Groce knows that for his team to be successful this season, every workout and practice needs to be important to the players.

With the roster overhaul Illinois endured from a season ago, Groce needs all the help he can get.

Only three rotation players return, and Rayvonte Rice practiced with the team last season. Beside that, four new transfers (though only Jon Ekey is eligible to play this season) to go along with the five incoming freshmen.

In past years, Illinois has had clear-cut best players: Brandon Paul last year, Meyers Leonard the season before and Demetri McCamey the season before that. But this season the Illini have yet to find their go-to player. Just like Dorothy searching for an all-powerful Wizard, Groce is trying to find his team’s best player.

Tracy Abrams is a prime candidate to lead the team. As a true freshman Abrams was named Team MVP during the 2011-12 season despite having sub-par numbers. Bruce Weber gave Abrams the award because of his leadership. Groce also spoke of Abrams’ improved leadership during the offseason. He made major strides in his sophomore campaign, improving his PPG from 4.3 to 10.6 while upping his PER from 7.5 to 15.9. Abrams was often Illinois’ most fearless player and drove with regularity, which was a nice change of pace from a roster full of shooters. Despite the improvements, Abrams still shot poorly (39.4 from the field, 27.2 from behind the arc) and turned the ball over far too often (19.4 times per 100 plays, leading the team). If the junior point guard can’t handle being the go-to player, maybe the lone returning upperclassman can pick up the slack.

Joseph Bertrand might be the player most benefited by Paul’s departure. He can finally show what he is capable of now that Paul isn’t hoisting shots. Paul had the second-highest usage percentage in the Big Ten last year at 29.2. Bertrand ranked sixth on the team behind Griffey at 17.1, which is unacceptable for someone with his talent. Bertrand is quietly Illinois’ most efficient player, as he’s shot over 50 percent from the floor every year of his career thanks to his deadly floater. His true shooting percentage of 56.9 led the team last season (he was also second on the team the season before). Bertrand has never played more than 22.7 minutes per game in a season, and that number should increase drastically this year. Bertrand averaged 13 points and seven rebounds in the four games he played last season where he got 30-plus minutes of playing time. With a higher usage rate those numbers should be even better next season.

If Bertrand struggles with an expanded role, Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice could emerge as the team’s go-to option. Rice could do it all, as he led Drake in points (13.8), rebounds (4.8), steals (1.4) and blocks per game (0.8) as a freshman. Groce said Rice has the ability to play up to four positions. At 6-foot-4, he makes up for his lack of height with supreme strength. The burly Rice has actually lost 36 pounds since he first got to Illinois, but still outweighs Bertrand, who is two inches taller, by around 30 pounds. As Groce said during his press conference on Wednesday, Rice is a “grown man.” That strength helps Rice pull down boards at a prestigious rate for a guard (5.8 RPG during his sophomore season) while also helping him draw fouls in bunches (5.6 FTA per game for his career). Rice’s 16.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.9 SPG and 0.8 BPG line is so distinct, only six other guards in Division I basketball have put up those numbers in a season since 1997-98, according to sports-reference.com. One of them was Dwyane Wade, who accomplished the feat twice with Marquette. There are question marks surrounding Rice because of the level of competition, or lack thereof, he faced playing in the Missouri Valley Conference. We’ll see if Rice can adjust to the Big Ten grind.

Maybe Abrams, Bertrand or Rice won’t develop into Illinois’ go-to player this season. Maybe that player will instead be someone else on the team, such as Nnanna Egwu or Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey, as doubtful as that may seem. Heck, maybe even a star will emerge from the heralded freshman class. Or maybe Illinois doesn’t need a clear-cut best player, but instead a team deep with ready contributors. As Groce and SEAL team trainers have reiterated to his team throughout the offseason, “How many people does it take to win? Everybody.”

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, maybe Groce and his team will discover they’ve had what they’ve been looking for all along.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]