Without a doubt, Illinois basketball (and athletics in general) was an unmitigated disaster in early 2012. After a 10-0 start, the Illini faltered once Big Ten play began. They lost 10 of their final 11 games, and by the end of the season it was clear that Bruce Weber had lost his team.
Fast forward to the summer, and Weber was long gone from Champaign. AD Mike Thomas had failed to lure his top target and former colleague, Shaka Smart, away from VCU. As The Illini finally settled on John Groce, skepticism quickly faded as he landed two high profile 2013 recruits. Could he really be the man to bring the program back to prominence? While the answer to that won't be determined for years, one thing is for sure: his team this year, comprised almost entirely of Weber holdovers, has bought in. So what is different from the team that started 10-0 last year? After all, they beat a ranked Gonzaga team last year as well and had the attention of the national media.
Let's not give back handed compliments here: the success of this team is much more than Brandon Paul's ability to score the rock. The loss of NBA talent Meyers Leonard left a huge whole down low, so to compensate, Groce has EVERYONE on this team crashing the boards. Even his guards. No one on the team is averaging more than five boards per game, but nearly everyone in the eight man rotation is averaging at least three. While most of those haven't been offensive rebounds, it's been sufficient to keep their opponents from getting a ton of second chance points. If you have excellent guard play and you can limit the other team to one shot per possession, you'll win a solid amount of games.
This leads to my second point. This team has multiple deadly three point shooters, and they haven't needed a lot in the way of offensive rebounds. Aside from Paul and DJ Richardson, 6-9 big man Tyler Griffey has been deadly at times from outside as well, hitting four threes against Butler and five against Georgia Tech. Having three key players shooting over 35 percent from beyond the arc means you'll have plenty of opportunities to penetrate and have open opportunities in the paint. Even though Griffey was cold from outside against the Zags, guards Tracey Abrams and Joseph Bertrand were able to pour in a lot of penetration points (not to mention Paul, who scored from everywhere on the court).
So is this team the real deal this time or will they again choke when Big Ten play starts? My money right now says this team is for real. For starters, the Illini's hot start last year came almost entirely at home, and this year they're winning on the road. I think VERY highly of Gonzaga, and the Groce's squad went into Spokane and domiated the talented Bulldogs in the second half. You can shrug your shoulders at their win in Hawaii against Butler, but Butler has racked up non-conference wins against Marquette, North Carolina and Northwestern thus far. Illinois won that game by 17, and it really wasn't even that close. Whatever happens in the huge match up against rival Missouri, the selection committee will be quite impressed at the Illini's ability to win at home, neutral and away in the non-conference.
What scares me about this team? The lack of assists (they're 222nd currently), assist/turnover ratio (1:1, yikes), and free throw shooting (71 percent). When Big Ten play starts, they aren't going to out muscle anyone, so they'll need to be able to distribute the ball efficiently when the three pointers aren't falling in order to win close games. They'll also need to up their free throw percentage to around 75 percent to compensate for a lack of putback points.
My prediction: If I had to seed them right now, it would be impossible to put Illinois any lower than a 3. I do think they'll have several off-nights in Big Ten play. But that's alright, because for every night they struggle from the field, they'll have just as many nights where they seemingly can't miss, and they'll win some big games because of it. I think they'll finish around 11-7 in conference play and 24-9 overall. That gives them several top 50 wins and easily puts them in the tournament as a 5 or 6 seed.
Growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia in the heart of ACC Country, college hoops was set into the fabric of Rusty Tutton at an early age. A 2008 graduate of VCU, he lives in the Fan District of Richmond and works full-time in higher education.