Fighting Illini Hurting NCAA Hopes Early
The University of Illinois’ Fighting Illini dropped a disappointing game last night to Purdue 66-58. The Illini are currently experiencing a 3 game losing streak. The team got hot near the end of December as they defeated then #23 Missouri, and followed that up with wins against UIC, Indiana and Penn State. The Illini then traveled to Wisconsin where they were manhandled by the Badgers 95-70. The team hasn’t looked the same since. A painful loss at Northwestern and the defeat last night to Purdue have put the Illinis hopes of making the dance very unlikely.
As I mention the dance, lets take a look at who this team is and what should have been expected of them. Coach John Groce completely tore apart the roster and rid himself of Bruce Webers players. The only holdovers left from just two years ago are senior Joseph Bertrand and juniors Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams. A handful of transfers and five freshman round out Groces’ roster. Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice showed early on that he was a man among men. Groce encouraged him and he got into the best shape of his life. The last few games however he has come back down to earth. He’s struggling to finish on his drives to the basket and the jumpers he took earlier in the season are no longer falling.
The upperclassmen on this team should be leading the way. Nnanna Egwu is 6’10″ and plays more perimeter basketball than he does in the paint. Egwu is 0-11 from 3 dating back to December 21 when he went 2-2 against Missouri. I understand he can make the 3, but you can’t teach size, why isn’t this guy on the block banging his body around more. He has a nice touch from 14 feet in. Thats where he should be playing. Tracy Abrams is an erratic junior point guard. One game he will make you think he’s an all Big Ten point guard and the next he’s hardly even there. Abrams has the ability to make plays and can handle the ball well, but he tends to get too flashy and turns the ball over more than you would like from your point. Joseph Bertrand is a fly above the rim style 2-guard who doesnt have the best jumper, struggles to create his own shot and really only succeeds when moving off picks and confusing the defense. He’s a limited scorer, who can change momentum in a game with a huge dunk.
Jon Ekey transferred to the Illini as a grad student from Illinois State University. He has been a very welcome addition to the roster. He’s by no means a star, but a very good piece to the puzzle. Ekey play solid defense, can make a big shot when needed and took a leadership role early on with this team. A much needed piece that this team did not get was senior guard, Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks. He would’ve probably been the #2 scorer that this team so desperately needs. However, the NCAA denied his hardship waiver and he is forced to sit out the year. Darius Paul will also be a member of this team next year as he sits this year after transferring from Western Michigan and Aaron Cosby will provide more scoring for the Illini as he transfers over from Seton Hall.
The most important thing we see this year as Illini fans is development of the 5 freshman. Jaylon Tate is developing faster than anyone would have ever expected and might be playing the best of the 5 so far this season. His assist to turnover ratio is 3-1, which is outstanding for a freshman and he will only continue to get better. Kendrick Nunn, Tates High School teammate, is already a defensive force. He appears to be getting more comfortable offensively as the season rolls on. Malcolm Hill came to the Illini via St. Louis and he has struggled with fouls and adjusting his game to the faster paced NCAA. However, he has shown flashes of becoming a great player. He’s not developing as quickly as Nunn and Tate but he is well on his way,however, he shouldn’t be expected to be a major contributor this season.
The two big guys of the freshman 5 seem to be struggling the most. Austin Colbert is getting beat up in the paint. He is going to need to put on some pounds this coming offseason. However, for the rest of this season he will still see significant time due to the Illini not having many big men. Hopefully, his confidence doesn’t take a hit moving forward. Maverick Morgan is in a very similar boat to Colbert. Difference being Colbert can swing outside and do other things. Morgan is strictly a post player. He could become a big time shot blocker and rebounder but he has to get his foul problems under control.
The Illini are a talented team, but they are young. If the upperclassmen don’t start stepping up soon, this team will have no chance at getting a tournament bid. I never expected a great year from this team, and quite frankly I believe they overachieved early on. They have a tough stretch of games coming up after losing the games they needed to win. I can’t see this season ending well. But, maybe an NIT bid would suit this team better anyhow. Sounds crazy, right? More games, more opportunities and more development for the freshman. They could possibly win a handful of games, maybe the tournament. What would that do for these kids confidence? This is a developmental season, a roster like no other in Groces 21 year coaching career. Lets see where they go from here and just remember, the future in Champaign is continuously getting brighter.
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