If Illini reach potential, they will be a tournament team

Illinois head coach John Groce will host top point guard recruit Jalen Brunson this weekend. The visit is the first of five recruits to visit this fall. Brunson is choosing between Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Temple and Villanova.

Last season, Illinois basketball was defined by a series of “ifs”.

The 2013-14 Illini had nine newcomers on its roster, and head coach John Groce had to throw his unbalanced roster together and do what he could to help them succeed. After suffering an eight-game losing streak in Big Ten play, the Illini almost pulled off a miraculous run right into the NCAA tournament.

Here’s where the “ifs” come into play.

If current point guard Ahmad Starks had gotten his hardship waiver approved by the NCAA prior to last season, he might have been enough of a difference-maker to propel the Illini to a tournament berth. But he didn’t.

If Groce had inserted then-freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn into the starting lineup in place of Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey sooner, maybe the Illini could have snapped their losing skid before it reached eight. But he didn’t.

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    If Tracy Abrams had knocked down that buzzer-beating floater against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, maybe the Illini would have received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. But he didn’t.

    Still, I have some fond memories of last season.

    The UNLV game stands out, when Rayvonte Rice officially arrived on the scene, dropping 25 points and racking up 10 boards.

    The Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri was an all-time classic, when Abrams personally buried the Tigers with two free throws.

    The Indiana game on New Year’s Eve was the most electric home win of the season, and late-season wins at Michigan State and Iowa breathed life back into the season.

    However, history will likely look back at last season as a bump in the road for the John Groce era at Illinois. It will hopefully be the last time for a long time that Illinois falls short of the Big Dance.

    As the attention turns to the 2014-15 Illini, the upcoming season becomes not a series of “ifs”, but a season of “wills”.

    Will the Illini be able to effectively shoot the ball from the outside? Another solid season defensively is likely in the cards, and we already know guys like Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill can attack the basket. The biggest question mark will be if shooters like Starks and transfer Aaron Cosby can knock down outside shots at a high enough clip to allow lanes to open up for the offense.

    Will Kendrick Nunn stay healthy, and will he and Malcolm Hill make a significant sophomore leap? Nunn’s knee limited his athleticism last year, according to Groce, and he was held out of the “Illini All In” scrimmage as a precaution. If he’s healthy, many expect him and Hill to build on strong finishes from last season and potentially have breakout years. Hill showed serious potential in the scrimmage, but we’ll have to wait and see on Nunn.

    Will the Illini avoid the “January slump” that has plagued Groce’s first two seasons in Champaign? Illinois has a combined 3-12 record in January since Groce took over, and they can’t afford another winter swoon if they want to finish in the top half of the Big Ten this season. Consistency held the Illini back in Groce’s first season, and a lack of talent caused the skid last year. They appear to have more than enough talent to be a tournament team this year, but the Illini will have to find some consistency to achieve the results they look to be capable of.

    If the Illini can execute in those three areas, they will make the NCAA tournament this season.

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