Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Although its top-rated incoming freshman
is ranked outside the Top 50 by most scouting services, Illinois has one of
the most intriguing recruiting classes in the nation.
John Groce managed to lead the Fighting Illini to the third round of the NCAA
Tournament this season before a 63-59 loss to Miami (Fla.) ended his inaugural
campaign as the team's head coach.
Returning to the Big Dance in 2013-14 would clearly require a strong recruiting
effort by Groce and his staff as Illinois graduated Brandon Paul, D.J.
Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin, who accounted for 58.2 percent of
the team's scoring.
The program also will be moving forward without senior guard Kevin Garardini,
Ibby Djimde, Devin Langford and Mike Shaw, who all elected to continue their
collegiate careers elsewhere. Myke Henry joined the list of players departing
from the Big Ten school as well, which left Illinois with only Joseph Bertrand,
Nnanna Egwu, Mike LaTulip and Tracy Abrams from last season's up-and-down but
ultimately successful unit.
Abrams, who averaged 10.6 points and a team-best 3.4 assists per game, is the
only returner with a proven knack for scoring. Bertrand showed he can be
efficient by hitting on 50.2 percent of his field goal attempts as a junior,
but he has a long way to go before his name will appear on the conference's
Despite losing a strong portion of what made them great in Groce's first season
on the bench, he may still have enough to make his fourth trip to the NCAA
Tournament in five years, including the 2010 and 2012 Mid-American Conference
championship seasons he produced while guiding the Ohio Bobcats.
The top tier programs such as Kansas, Kentucky and Duke reloaded their rosters
during the offseason by persuading the best high school talent to become a part
of their rich traditions. Illinois has a bright future thanks to its incoming
freshman class, but the fact that Champaign became a popular location for some
of college basketball's most intriguing transfers could keep it relevant in
the Big Ten race for next season.
Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will need to sit out a season before they can play
in the newly renamed State Farm Center. Both of their debuts in blue and
orange will be highly anticipated by the coaching staff thanks to their work
Cosby registered over 30 minutes per game and netted 12.6 points and 3.0
assists per outing for Seton Hall and will have two years of eligibility
remaining. Paul is the younger brother of the departing senior Brandon Paul and
flew under the radar of many suitors who could have used his services during
his prep career before landing at Western Michigan.
The 6-foot-8 forward won the 2012-13 MAC Freshman of the Year award as he
produced 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for the conference's West
Cosby and Paul will be able to practice with the team and improve the
competitiveness of the Illini's scout team while they polish their individual
skill sets next season. Groce will most likely have a trio of experienced
newcomers at his disposal as Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey and Ahmad Starks get set
to compete for minutes in his rotation.
Rice could have been on the short list for next season's Missouri Valley
Conference Player of the Year award had he decided to stay at Drake. The hefty
6-4 guard was named to the MVC All-Freshman Team in 2011 and was a Second-Team
All-MVC pick in 2012.
The Champaign native decided to return to his hometown after tallying just
under 1,000 total points in two seasons as a Bulldog. Rice, who was also the
2010 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior, will have
plenty to offer on the offensive end and he should have a grasp of the new
offensive system thanks to his off-court participation this past season.
Ekey brings some MVC experience to the table after serving as a role player in
Illinois State's run and gun-styled system for three years. The 6-7 forward
scored in double figures in nine of his first 13 games as a junior, but only
repeated that feat once more the rest of the way.
Ekey will able to play immediately because he graduated from ISU and plans to
pursue a graduate degree unavailable at his former school. He will provide
senior leadership to go along with his accurate free-throw and 3-point
Henry's departure from the program opened up a scholarship just in time for
Starks, who announced he's departing the Pac-12 to attend a school near his
home in Chicago to be closer to his ailing grandmother. The 5-9 guard rarely
let his lack of size serve as an obstacle when it came to playing time
in the first three years of his career.
Starks started 73 games as a Beaver, but he was less successful as a junior
(10.4 ppg, 2.7 apg) compared to his sophomore campaign (12.1 ppg, 2.7 apg),
which was made easier by the NBA-bound Jared Cunningham. Starks is likely to be
granted instant eligibility as the NCAA usually permits a player to change
schools without penalty when an immediate family member's health provokes the
Illinois doesn't have any All-American-caliber talent from the high school
ranks on the way. It fell out of the race for the Land of Lincoln's top
prospect Jabari Parker shortly after Bruce Weber was fired, but it replaced
some of what was lost from its backcourt by signing in-state prospects
Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Malcolm Hill to letters of intent. It also
bolstered its front line by adding Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan.
Nunn and Tate both played for Simeon Career Academy, the prominent Windy City
high school which former Illinois star Nick Anderson and current Chicago Bulls
guard Derrick Rose attended.
Nunn and Tate were both overshadowed by Parker during their high school
careers, so it should be interesting to see how the starting backcourt from the
Class 4A championship squad plays without the combo highly touted Duke-bound
swingman and Steve Taylor, who is headed North to join Buzz Williams at
Nunn fits the mold of the departed Paul and Richardson, who were both shorter
than the prototype for the scoring guard position. His combination of 3-point
range, athleticism and defensive toughness should allow him to overcome his
lack of size with ease. Tate did not receive as much attention from recruiters
as his teammates, but his unselfish nature makes him an ideal floor general to
run a Big Ten offense.
Hill has the size and basketball I.Q. to make an immediate impact on the wing.
The 6-6 guard from Belleville East is young for his grade, though, and could
use a year or two to develop, which he and Tate now have the ability to
do thanks to the Illini's deep crop of newcomers.
Not to be forgotten, Colbert is going to contribute right away defensively and
may evolve into a future NBA Draft first-round pick if he develops both
offensively and physically.
The 6-10 Morgan hardly displayed explosiveness during his prep career, which
resulted in him being labeled a three-star recruit. He has exhibited good skill
and awareness to go along with his massive frame. Keep in mind, Aaron Gray was
once a three-star recruit who quietly joined Pittsburgh the same offseason
Chris Taft became a Panther. Taft jumped to the professional ranks after one
season while Gray went on to become a Third Team All-American and the Big
East's rebounding champion in 2005-06.
Illinois will more than likely be the most attractive program at the end of
next season, which is only going to strengthen its pursuit of the 6-10, 265-
pound prize of the 2014 recruiting class, Jahlil Okafor, who currently
attends Whitney Young High School in Chicago.
Even if Okafor takes his talents to another state, the Illini are going to
consistently compete for the conference title. Playing time will still be
abundant for the newcomers as Starks and Ekey will only be around for one
season before Cosby and Paul become eligible.
Ohio reached the Sweet 16 and came just short of upsetting a stacked North
Carolina team in Groce's final year with the Bobcats. His best player from
that squad, D.J. Cooper, is at best going to be a second-round selection in
the upcoming rookie draft despite a record-breaking four-year run in Athens.
The lack of any surefire NBA prospects on any of his recent NCAA Tournament
teams is a testament to Groce's in-game coaching competence.
Groce's transfer-ladened recruiting class has set up Illinois for a return to
greatness. The Illini suddenly have a very deep backcourt that contains both
proven veterans and freshmen with limitless room for growth. The incoming big
men should be plenty for Groce, who is an expert of coaching a perimeter-based
The Big Ten was one of the toughest conferences in the land last season with
Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Iowa
all collecting more than 20 wins apiece. With Iowa being the lone exception,
all of those programs will have to forge a new identity as they try to replace
vital components lost to graduation and the transfer wire.
Illinois may not have the most balanced or talented group among the league's
members, but it is apparent Groce is one of the game's young coaching gems, so
his team should not be underestimated.
The Sports Network