Illinois Is Headed In The Right Direction

john groce

Generally, when a college basketball team follows up a trip to the NCAA tournament with an NIT berth (or what’s likely to be an NIT berth, nothing official yet) the next season, this is a bad sign. It’s a step back.

When it comes to Illinois, however, that’s not really the case.

This season was not a great one for Illinois, and it wasn’t a good college basketball season for the Chicago area in general. Chris Collins has brought hope to Northwestern, but it was still Northwestern this year. Then there’s DePaul, which, well, I don’t even know where to begin.

When it comes to Illinois, however, I can’t help but feel the results will come sooner. An NIT berth isn’t something to brag about, but it’s not below expectations, either. Only the most optimistic Illini fan would have had the team pegged for the NCAA tournament this season. The realist knew that the NIT was the most likely destination.

Yes, last season’s team made the tournament, and was one bad call by a referee away from possibly being in the Sweet 16. But this year’s team wasn’t last year’s. John Groce completely overhauled the Illini roster in his first year on the job. When this season began there were four players on the roster who were on it last season: Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Joe Bertrand and Mike LaTulip. Rayvonte Rice was in Champaign last season, but as a transfer, he wasn’t on the roster. As for LaTulip, he’s a walk-on sophomore that has played a whopping 44 minutes this season.

The rest of the roster was new faces. Five freshmen, a grad school transfer in Jon Ekey, and three other transfers who weren’t eligible to play this year. In other words, at the start of the year, Illinois’ entire bench consisted of five true freshmen and a walk-on sophomore.

You try getting through the Big Ten with that kind of roster.

Well, Illinois did, and it failed rather spectacularly. After starting out 2-0 in Big Ten play with wins over Indiana and Penn State in Champaign, the Illini then lost their next eight games, and 10 of 11. Things were spiraling out of control, and at that point even the NIT seemed to be wishful thinking.

But then John Groce made a change. He inserted two of his freshmen, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, into the starting lineup. Both had been playing better as the season went along, and both seemed ready to take on more responsibility.

And wouldn’t you know it, it worked?

In the 10 games the Illini have played since the lineup shuffling, they’ve gone 6-4 with road wins against Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa. They also beat Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and literally came up about an inch short on Tracy Abrams’ runner at the buzzer of knocking off regular season champion Michigan in the second round.

The catalyst of all this being the play of the freshmen combined with brilliant defense.

What gives me so much hope for the future of the program, though, are those freshmen. While he was in high school, Kendrick Nunn was a very good player at Simeon (where he won four state titles), but he didn’t get a lot of attention. That’s what happens when you’re playing on the same team as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Jabari Parker. When the season started, Nunn got off on a bad foot. You could see the potential there, but it was as if he was trying too hard.

The jumper looked nervous, and on defense he was playing with his hands too much, reaching in and not using his feet. But he figured it out, and since being inserted into the starting lineup Nunn has averaged 11.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists all while shooting 51% from the floor and 49% from three. Oh, and he’s done all this while playing stellar defense, and often guarding the best offensive player on the other team.

Malcolm Hill’s numbers aren’t nearly as strong as Nunn’s, but he’s shown his own flashes of brilliance, and looks poised to become a very good player in the coming seasons.

And at the risk of sounding cliched, there’s just something about the way this team plays under John Groce. It isn’t scared of anybody, and it actually plays better against tougher competition.

The only players the Illini will lose this year are Bertrand and Ekey, while the three transfers — Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul — will all be eligible to play next year, as will incoming freshmen Leron Black (whom I really like and feel could develop into a star) as well as Michael Finke. Even further down the road, John Groce is off to an excellent start in his 2015 recruiting class as well.

In other words, even after a step back this year, in my mind, everything about Illinois basketball is heading in the right direction. So while the NIT should never be the goal, this year it’s an acceptable pit stop along the way to a better destination down the road.

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