Joe Robbins - Getty Images
Illinois collapsed last year down the stretch -- they closed out the season with 12 losses in 14 games, star player Meyers Leonard struggled, and coach Bruce Weber was fired -- but new coach John Groce is inheriting some talented players and could surprise in the Big Ten this year. It will be tough for Illinois to gain traction in the nation's toughest conference, although there's definitely some potential for a program that may have hit rock bottom a year ago.
17-15 (6-12), T-9th in the Big Ten
0-2 vs. Michigan (70-61 L in Ann Arbor, and 72-61 L in Champaign)
It's hard to envision a much more catastrophic end to a season than the one that Illinois endured a year ago. After an impressive home upset over Ohio State keyed by Brandon Paul's amazing 43 point performance, the Illini were at the top of the Big Ten at 15-3 (4-1), and between Paul and Meyers Leonard, there looked to be enough talent to make a run at the Big Ten title. From there, though, things went downhill quickly. Illinois ended the season with 12 losses in 14 games -- an upset loss on the road to Penn State a week after the OSU game triggered an remarkable slide. They managed to beat Michigan State at home during that span in an ugly 42-41 game, but otherwise, they were swept by Wisconsin and Michigan, blown out by Ohio State and Nebraska, and coach Bruce Weber was essentially apologizing for his team's performance before the season was over.
The collapse wasn't exactly inconceivable; Weber's Illinois teams had generally trended downward for a few years, and this was the year where the bottom fell out. The most glaring issues were on the offensive end -- Illinois had some talented players (Leonard was a high draft pick this past summer and the roster was littered with a few formerly decorated recruits), but too often found itself passing the ball around the perimeter and lazily taking low percentage shots. Of course, there were other problems with how Weber handled some of his players during his tenure and there was the general feeling that he had succeeded early on because of the players left over by Bill Self (and while that perspective does have some merit, credit should be given to Weber for the team's amazing 2005 season). In the end though, the increasingly ugly meltdown compounded on itself, Illinois lost a bunch of games that it probably shouldn't have, and Weber was given the boot.
Conference-Only Four Factors
|B1G Rank||B1G Rank|
|Effective FG %||48.6||9||52.3||8|
|Offensive Rebounding %||28.1||9||28.7||4|
|FT Attempts / FG Attempts||32.0||9||38.5||10|
For all of its talent, Illinois certainly had the statistical resume of a mediocre team -- their offense was poor in pretty much every key area (even getting to the free throw line; if Leonard had been more assertive on offense, the Illini would have been there a lot). The defense wasn't a whole lot better, as opponents shot over 40% from three point range and were able to get to the free throw line with a lot of success.
- C Meyers Leonard -- 13.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG (left early for the NBA Draft)
Losing Leonard wasn't necessarily a surprise -- he was projected as a top pick and showed enough during the year (and at the combine) to warrant a lottery selection and the contract that went along with it. Still, Illinois will sorely miss the rangy post player -- underused though he was -- as his scoring touch, shot-blocking prowess, and rebounding ability will be pretty much irreplaceable.
- G Sam Maniscalco -- 6.1 PPG, 2.9 APG (Graduated)
Maniscalco came in as a fifth-year graduate transfer who was immediately eligible, but the point guard battled injuries and was unable to really stabilize the offense like the Illini had hoped. He was probably their best option at the point be default, even if he didn't make a huge impact as a one-year player.
- SR G Brandon Paul -- 14.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.9 APG
In some ways, like Leonard, Paul was emblematic of the Illini offense's struggles. His outstanding performance against Ohio State (probably the best of any player in the Big Ten in any game last year) is one of the first things that comes to mind, but he also shot less than 40% from the field over the season despite having the highest usage rate on the team by far. It was maddening that Leonard wasn't getting the ball enough, but it was extremely frustrating to see Paul put up a ton of ill-advised shots and go hot-and-cold, but mostly cold, from game to game.
- SR G D.J. Richardson -- 11.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG
Richardson came in as a pretty highly-regarded recruit and has played quite a bit (at least 25 minutes per game in each of his first three seasons), but has yet to make the leap to be the All-Big Ten level player that people thought he'd be when he signed with Illinois. He still has another year to make it happen -- he was the team's best shooter by far -- so it will be interesting to see if the coaching change helps him reach his potential.
- JR G Joseph Bertrand -- 6.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG
Last year, Bertrand was a little-known reserve who burst onto the scene with a terrific 19 point (9-9 shooting) game in Illinois' near-upset of Missouri in December. He didn't reach that level of production too often, but he's a big, fairly athletic wing player who is nice to have as a third scorer.
- F Sam McLaurin (transfer from Coastal Carolina, 10.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.9 BPG last year)
Another graduate transfer from a low-major school, McLaurin will have one year of eligibility for Illinois. He's a big, physical forward who can attack the offensive glass and contribute fairly well on offense. It's only a one year fix -- Illinois really needs help in the frontcourt now that Leonard is gone -- and it will be a tough transition to the Big Ten, but McLaurin should be able to contribute fairly consistently.
Games vs. Michigan
Jan. 27 (in Champaign), Feb. 24 (in Ann Arbor)
After some really big name coaching prospects were discussed for the Illinois job, Illinois wound up hiring John Groce away from Ohio. Groce is a young, really energetic guy who has excelled on the recruiting trail (and Illinois needs to recruit Chicago better than it has been of late) but he's also proven that he can succeed as a head coach, as evidenced by the Bobcats' Sweet Sixteen run last year. Groce inherits a roster with some pretty decent talent -- Paul is inconsistent but very skilled, Richardson is a decent shooter, and McLaurin is an interesting prospect at for the Illini. The problem last year wasn't that Illinois lacked talent though, so developing some cohesiveness and erasing the memory of last season's debacle will be paramount to the success of this team. If Paul can have a breakout senior year -- unlikely, given his streakiness -- and if the frontcourt can be settled by a combination of McLaurin, Tyler Griffey, and Nnanna Egwu, the Illini could make some noise. Losing Leonard to the NBA was a big blow though, and even though Groce is recruiting pretty well so far (and unlike Weber, he seems to be a pretty solid coach as well), it's going to be difficult to have much success in year one with how tough the conference is this year. I thought that Groce was a very good hire for Illinois and his guard-oriented system seems to fit the returning starters well, but reversing the culture of the program and moving towards the top of the conference will be a longer process than the Illini faithful would like. However, if Groce is a better coach than anybody could have guessed, Illinois certainly has the potential -- read: talent -- to surprise a lot of people this year.