Influx of new players can push Illinois to the top of the Big Ten next season


The Illinois men’s basketball team teetered on the edge of success all season long. The Illini always seemed to need that extra push, that little something to put them over the top.

The mid-season insertion of freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill into the starting lineup provided a momentary spark, but the Illini fell short in the end. Illinois’ last two losses of the season came by a combined two points. John Groce and his staff could only do so much with a roster lacking in talent and depth. Groce won’t have that problem next season.

Seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey played their final game in Illinois’ loss to Clemson in the second round of the NIT on March 23. Illinois will return all five starters including the senior trio of Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice. Returning the nucleus of a 20-15 team is nothing to celebrate, but the real excitement begins when considering who the Illini will add next season.

Transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be joined by incoming freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke. 

Starks and Cosby, who will be eligible to play next year after transferring from Oregon State and Seton Hall, respectively, will provide Illinois with outside threats that weren’t available this season. Illinois ranked 140th in the nation with just 210 made 3-pointers this season. Starks and Cosby combined for 130 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip during the 2012-13 season. Abrams and Nunn will man the guard spots to begin next season, but don’t be surprised if Starks and Cosby shoot their way into major minutes.

Don’t sleep on Western Michigan transfer Darius Paul, either. The younger brother of Illini great Brandon Paul will be just a sophomore next season, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t ready to contribute.

Paul was the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year in 2013 after averaging 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game during his first year in Kalamazoo, Mich. Paul also sported an 18.8 player efficiency rating, which would’ve ranked second on Illinois this season. The MAC might not have the best competition, but Rice made a similar transition from the Missouri Valley Conference this past season. Rice’s numbers were almost identical to his final season at Drake, despite the bump in competition.

Aside from the boost the transfers will provide, Illinois will also introduce a solid freshman class next season. Leron Black is not Cliff Alexander, but he’s still a big-time recruit. The 6-foot-7 Memphis product is the 43rd-ranked player in the class of 2014, according to ESPN. Black is Illinois’ highest ranked prospect on ESPN’s database since Jereme Richmond in 2010. Black should get a fair share of minutes as a freshman with the departure of Ekey at power forward. He will add much-needed athleticism and rebounding to Illinois’ frontcourt.

Centennial High School product Michael Finke will give Groce a stretch-four option off the bench in 2014-15. Finke should remind Illini nation of Ekey and Tyler Griffey with his ability to knock down perimeter shots despite his 6-foot-9 build. Finke could be the odd man out of the rotation next season, but expect his shooting to get him on the floor when a favorable matchup presents itself.

Groce will finally have players that were specifically recruited to fit his system and run his offense. Transitioning from coaches can take a program years, and next season might be Groce’s first chance to really put his stamp on Illinois.

As crazy as it might sound after a 20-15 season, Illinois has a chance to finish in the top three in the Big Ten next year. Quality players will be leaving the Big Ten left and right after this season, while Illinois is only getting stronger.

Michigan State, the Big Ten Tournament Champions, will graduate seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne while sophomore Gary Harris will likely leave for the NBA Draft. Michigan, the Big Ten regular season champions, will lose senior Jordan Morgan and could lose sophomores Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and conference player of the year Nic Stauskas to the NBA. Ohio State will have to adjust to playing without seniors Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. as well as LaQuinton Ross, who already declared for the NBA Draft. Wisconsin projects to be the big dog in the conference next season, with Ben Brust and Zach Bohannon likely being their only departures.

Illinois should be right in the mix as one of the better teams in the conference next season. The Illini will return the heart of a team that ranked 10th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Throw in a mix of talented transfers and freshmen, and all of a sudden this team is ready to compete.

Who knows? Illinois could still be playing basketball around this time a year from now, and it might not be in the NIT.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb