It’s time to focus on this year’s team


Ianyone else ready for basketball season to start?

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to watch actual Illinois basketball, featuring actual Illini players.

You can only do so many fantasy projections of lineups two years down the road, happily plugging in every five-star recruit on John Groce’s radar into the Illini’s 2016 National Championship roster. I don’t blame you. I do the same thing every fall while averting my eyes from the disaster that is Illinois football.

No, Illinois didn’t get Elijah Thomas on Tuesday. The Illini didn’t get Jalen Brunson or Jawun Evans, either. Illinois hasn’t had much luck with public press conference-style announcements since Austin Colbert donned an orange and blue cap back in 2012.

Recruiting is an interesting thing to follow, and it’s easy to see why fans track it closely. It’s fun to speculate about who might be suiting up for the beloved team down the road, and it can be entertaining to watch how recruiting classes shake out. Fans also tend to put recruits on a pedestal, overestimating their shiny new toys and valuing them above the old, reliable ones they’ve had for years.

I’ve said before that Groce has already landed a solid recruiting class in the form of Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams and Jalen Coleman-Lands. It’s true. All three will likely be very good college basketball players. But they still won’t play for the Illini this season.

This season starts in 23 days, and the window to land players in the recruiting class of 2015 is closing fast. Sure, Groce will keep an eye on potential spring targets, but his focus will be on the 2014-15 version of Illinois basketball. At this point, our focus should be too.

So, since no one is expecting any major recruiting developments for a while, all of this pent-up Orange Energy has to go somewhere, right? What are the people who tweeted “#Illijah” non-stop for the past month going to do now?

Let’s pour that attention into the current Illini squad. Remember, these guys were all recruits too at one point, and they actually chose to play for Illinois.

Show some love for senior Nnanna Egwu, who seems to be on a mission to leave a lasting legacy at Illinois in his senior year. Groce has been heaping praise on the guy, and fans should too. He will be a huge key to the success of this team.

How about a shout-out for the shooters? Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Kendrick Nunn, who will stretch opposing defenses this year. Last year’s Illini sorely lacked an outside threat, which likely was the difference between an NCAA berth and an NIT bid.

The bruisers deserve a bump too. Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill and Leron Black will fill up stat sheets this year, thanks to their individual talent combined with the aforementioned three-point marksmen opening up driving lanes.

If Illini Nation can show support for some guys that might someday play for Illinois, they should be able to show it for our current roster, too. That includes Colbert, point guard Jaylon Tate, backup centers Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke, and walk-ons Mike LaTulip, Alex Austin and Cam Liss. Don’t forget injured point guard Tracy Abrams either, who will be an off-the-court leader for the Illini this season.

Illinois fans who are down about last season’s NIT appearance need to realize the Illini were playing NCAA tournament-level basketball down the stretch last season, and that was without anyone who could consistently shoot the ball. This is an NCAA tournament team this year, period. I believe Groce will have the Illini in the Top 25 for the majority of the season, as well.

Don’t get too down about this latest recruiting setback. Actual basketball season is just around the corner, and it’s going to be a good one. Let the national media, who have picked the Illini to finish anywhere from sixth to tenth in the Big Ten this year, sleep on this team. I bet they’ll be voting the Illini into the polls before you know it.

Groce deserves praise for his recruiting efforts this fall. But his current team deserves your attention going forward, and it will deserve credit soon enough.

Illini fans didn’t get to drive the flashy, brand-new car off the lot on Tuesday. Good thing the current one runs just fine, and just might go farther than anyone expects.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.