Despite modest expectations, Illinois men’s basketball shouldn’t be overlooked

The cogs of Illinois’ NCAA tournament team from a year ago are gone. The foundation Illinois head coach John Groce built last season still exists, but the inhabitants are brand new.

Illinois has already received 2014 commitments from top-100 recruits in power forward Leron Black (41st overall according to ESPN) and point guard Quentin Snider (35th overall on ESPN). Transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be eligible to play by then after sitting out the 2013-14 season. Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey will be the only departures.

The 2014-15 Illini are already being hyped as the best Illinois team since 2004-05. But it’s not 2014 yet. There’s still a season to be played and reason for optimism this year.

Don’t expect John Groce to give up. No one thought Groce would take Bruce Weber’s miscasts and turn them into an NCAA tournament team last season. Groce maximized the potential of his mediocre roster. This year’s team shouldn’t be brushed off, either.

There may not be a Brandon Paul on the team, but Illinois’ roster is deep with potential contributors.

Rayvonte Rice, a Champaign native, is going to quickly become a fan-favorite with his physical play and relentless attitude. I’m feeling strong vibes for him becoming the best player on this team sooner rather than later.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound guard is somewhat of a mystery man after transferring from Drake, but Rice has been raved about by his teammates. Bertrand, who has the unenviable task of being matched up with Rice regularly in practice, said you should expect much more athleticism from Rice than he displayed during his botched dunk during Illinois’ first exhibition game.

The upperclassmen trio of Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu will need to step up and provide solidarity to this team.

Bertrand and Abrams have already been rotation players for the past two years, adding much needed experience to this young Illini roster. Egwu has been a revelation so far in preseason activities, utilizing a low-post game unseen by the Illini since the departure of Meyers Leonard. Egwu’s key to his improved post game so far has been what he’s called “keeping it simple.” Egwu says Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford has worked with him regularly to rework his post skills.

The newcomers will be better than expected as well, with Illinois State transfer Ekey leading the way. The 6-foot-7 forward may be the best shooter on the team with 112 career 3-pointers. The Ekey and Tyler Griffey comparison is a bit lazy. Ekey is more athletic and physical than Griffey was, so the starting power forward spot could produce more than last season.

Of the five freshmen, top-100 recruits Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have the most potential to crack the rotation this season. Hill at 6-foot-6 will be able to play three positions for the Illini this season. Nunn, who will proudly wear the storied No. 25 this season, has already got fans excited after his electric dunk in the first exhibition game. The left freshman will emerge as an important rotation player for this team. He’s just too talented. Hill and Nunn could quickly make Illini nation forget about next year’s top recruits.

Illinois might not compete for a national championship or even the Big Ten title this season. Illinois would surpass expectations if it even matched last season’s solid, unspectacular finish.

But writing off this team would be a mistake. There’s just too much talent on the roster. This team, even without a star like Paul, arguably fits Groce’s system better. With several players capable of playing multiple positions, Groce can use the Illini’s athleticism and length to match up with a variety of different opposing lineups.

The shadow of the 2014-15 Illini looms large, but this season’s team will surprise people. Next year can wait.

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