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Quick Peek At Next Year March 25, 2013

Every year, without fail, on the Tuesday after the national championship game, I scour the internet for “Way Too Early Top-25″ lists. Even years like this one, when I know we won’t be on anyone’s preseason top-25, I’ll still scan the lists, hoping to see a fat orange I. I’ll never not hope that someone believes in us more than I do.

Because I’ve always been a peek ahead guy – I mean, I have a 2015 Rose Bowl Depth Chart that I’ve been maintaining since Zook was fired (yes, really; seriously, I do) – on the day after we’re eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, I can’t not peek ahead at next year. The season is over, by my brain doesn’t want to leave obsession mode. So… let’s look at the 2013/14 Illini.

First off, as you know, we face huge graduation losses. Gigantic graduation losses. In the tournament, we settled on a seven-man rotation, and four of those seven players are now gone. To make things worse, there’s not a single player left from the 2010 recruiting class (Richmond, Leonard, and Head), so we’ll have only one senior: Joseph Bertrand (who redshirted in 2009/10). Any time you lose four seniors, and your next team only has one senior, you’re climbing uphill.

To make matters worse, there won’t be any sophomore leaps. Because we didn’t have any scholarship freshmen this year (Weber’s class that Groce inherited only had one player – Michael Orris – and Orris chose to follow Weber to Kansas State). So, more or less, here’s the hill that John Groce faces in his second season:

+ Loses four of the top seven guys in the rotation to graduation.
+ Wasn’t given a 2010 or 2012 recruiting class when he took the job.
+ Has only one senior, furthering the class balance issues down the line.
+ Had only seven months to recruit and sign a five-member 2013 class.
+ Will need to rely on several of those freshmen immediately.

No problem, right? Lose four seniors and then build your next team around juniors and the class you bring in. Yes, we’re probably looking at a big step back next year.

But digging a little further, maybe not. It’s a step back, but I think I’ve found a wishful-thinking, if-Wichita-State-can-do-it-anyone-can scenario where we can fit all of the pieces together.  We’re probably still not a tournament team, but maybe we can avoid Lon Kruger’s third season (1999) where he lost a bunch of seniors and we went 14-18.

First, it will take significant leaps for Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry, and Nnanna Egwu. Tracy and Nnanna took big steps forward from their freshman to sophomore seasons, and Myke took a medium step forward. All three need to make a big jump next year. If I could make a offseason wish list for all three, it would look like this:

Tracy: Improve the handle, improve the outside shot, but most importantly, create open looks for your teammates.

Nnanna: 23,000 post moves. Last summer it was 23,000 jump shots. This summer, just work on a drop step, or a baby hook, or some other go-to post move. And when it’s not there, work on passing out of the post.

Myke: Rebounding instincts are there, but defensive instincts need work. Improve on the defensive end and utilize that quick trigger to become a sneaky-good stretch four.

The other starter, besides these three and JoeBert (who I’ll get to in a minute), will likely be Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice. Rice is a 2-guard in a linebacker’s body, so it will be interesting to see where he fits in with Tracy and Joe. (It will also be interesting to see if we make any three pointers at all next season; next to the names Rice, Bertrand, and Abrams you will see the words “needs to develop a consistent jump shot”. If none of our guards are shooters next year, um, how are we going to score?)

OK, this was supposed to be the “how all the pieces might fit together and give us a surprising season next winter” section, and here I am pointing out that everyone might shoot 26% from three. Back on track. Starting with Joe.

Nnanna becomes a solid rebounder and defender. Tracy becomes a go-to bulldog. Myke becomes the perfect stretch four. Rayvonte is the ultimate glue guy, finishing in the top-3 on the team in scoring and steals and rebounds. And Joe becomes the go-to senior leader.

We’ve seen bursts – Missouri last year, Georgia Tech this year – where Bertrand showed that he can put a team on his shoulders. Now, can he do it every night? Can he be our go-to offensive threat?  Can he be a poor man’s BP3?

If he can, the other pieces seem to fit better. Freshman guards Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill can be brought along slowly off the bench, not forced into action because we need their scoring.  And if Joe can fill in some at the four, it takes the pressure off freshmen Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan to contribute a lot right away.

And what about the bench guys from this year?  Will we see anything out of Mike Shaw or Devin Langford? Will Ibby Djimde ever play?  With Groce recruiting guys like Colbert and Morgan for his system, have all of these guys already been recruited over?  Will some transfer?

Hmmm… this IS a way-too-early peek at next year.  We’re still chasing Juco guards to be part of next year’s class.  We might find another Sam McLaurin 5th-year transfer that can help the frontcourt.  We might see three guys transfer out.  We might see everyone back and a team that relies heavily on Mike Shaw minutes at the four.  We might see Mike LaTulip as our go-to shooter off the bench (like Indiana did with Matt Roth as they rebuilt).

So there you go. I’ve talked myself in a complete circle.  With the only pure shooters being freshmen, this team probably struggles offensively next year.  With only one senior and a lot of freshmen contributing early, this team probably struggles defensively as well.  Yes, the Big Ten will take a step back, but we might take the biggest step back.  The rebuilding job in front of John Groce hits home next season.

Which means I think the goal is the second weekend of the 2015 Tournament.  Rebuild this team next year.  Implement more of the system.  Get the 2013 class prepared.  Recruit some instant impact 2014 guys.  And then take that mix in 2014/15 – Tracy and Nnanna senior leaders, sophomore leaps from Nunn and Hill and maybe Colbert/Morgan, one or two instant impact freshmen – and begin to make our surge back to the upper echelon of the B1G.

After that, it should start to roll.  Maybe one more step back in 2015/16 (once again, a senior-less team), and then the following season he’ll have four full classes of guys recruited to this system.  At that point, given what we saw this year, I think John Groce can have us back in the top-10.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.  This post was about next year.  And it’s probably pretty obvious at this point: next year looks like a rebuild, and I’d rather look past it and dream of a fully rebuilt Illini Basketball program in 2-3 years.

Which leaves me here: when I look up the way-too-early preseason top-25 teams in a few weeks, I know we’ll be nowhere near the list.  But here’s hoping that next year’s rebuild (and recruiting) shows enough that when the post-2014-title-game, way-too-early 2015 lists come out, you’ll see a fat orange I.

kgwasmyfavorite13 March 26th, 2013

Robert, with all due respect, this isn’t 1985. Freshmen can/do play heavy, effective minutes in college basketball these days. I think it’s not only realistic to think we start (at least) one freshman in game one, it is a good thing. This is a good class and Hill/Nunn can slide in to be better shooting 2 guards than anyone else on the team. Morgan may be our first man off the bench, too. Don’t worry! We will make the tournament, AND we will have two guys on the all freshmen/newcomer list. Go Illini!

illiniranger March 26th, 2013

i think we also take a step back. i think Hill could be an elite shooter, and Nunn with time, but not next year. i also don’t see how Mav Morgan gets on the court in front of Mike Shaw unless 1 of 3 things happen: 1) Shaw txfers 2) Groce has already given up on him and has zero interest in playing him 3) Shaw has a serious injury. Morgan is no great athlete – he compares pretty favorably to Eliasson from Minny. If he is seeing significant minutes we’re in trouble. Mav needs a RS.
also, the B1G is the best conference in America. Iowa returns a ton of guys. UM will return a ton of guys. MSU and IU will reload. tOSU will return everyone but Thomas. Granted, there will be big losses everywhere, but some of our opponents are in “reload” mode while we are in “rebuild” mode. our scholly situation is a joke and is not helping.
if we make the tourney next year it will be a much better coaching job than this season.

PittsburghNellie March 26th, 2013

Morgan will play much more than Shaw next year. I’m willing to bet someone’s beach house on that

ATOillini March 26th, 2013

I think I’m just too old to take any pleasure in thinking about how we might still be in the tourney at this time in 2015. Please!
Seriously, any late season updates on next season’s recruits? Seems Hill had some good press.

Genesis March 27th, 2013

I’d agree that JoeB is the wild card for next year. He deferred to the seniors this year. Now that they are gone, I see Joe stepping up and taking charge on a more regualr basis. It won’t be every game, but Joe is talented and aggressive. Joe, Tracy and Rayvonte are all good at driving and slicing. As teams double-team the driver, i want to see a dump across to Nana and Myke or a kickout to our shooters. “Who will be there to reliably hit a 3″ is the 64,000 dollar question.

Steve March 27th, 2013

My own best guess is that we won’t be able to accurately predict what this team does. I think they will be pretty good, but incomplete and erratic. I suspect that January in particular will concern us. We will be finding our rhythms and improving, but not yet showing it. Projecting a lot from Coach Groce’s last several teams, at Ohio and Champaign, we will get better in February and we will be playing our best ball in March. I think that by March we will be a tournament worthy team, but I can’t guess whether or not our cumulative record will qualify us or not. I just think its a crapshoot on that point.
But, I’ll take it because I have such great faith in the longer term results.