Slowly but surely, I'm making my way up the 2013-14 Big Ten standings, guiding you like Virgil to the Purgatorial land known as Bubbleville. A strange as it is to see teams like Purdue, Indiana and Illinois populating the bottom 5 of the conference, such was the state of things this past season.
So, what happened this season?
Things started off not so bad for the Illini and John Groce during his second year in Champaign. Illinois raced to an 11-2 start--sure, there were cupcakes, just like everyone else--with a win against border rival Missouri, 65-64, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The two losses came against a mediocre Georgia Tech squad on Dec. 3 and to a dynamic Oregon squad in Portland on Dec. 14, 71-64.
The Illini continued those good feelings at the start of the conference slate, bagging a thrilling triple overtime victory against Indiana on New Year's Eve, then drubbing Penn State by 20 on Jan. 4. Sitting at 13-2, the Illini seemed destined to, at the very least, make the tournament barring a complete collapse.
Lo and behold, collapse they did. As Wisconsin is wont to do at the Kohl Center, the Badgers completely obliterated the Illini, 95-70. Okay, it was already clear that UW was a very good team by that point--chalk that up to a very bad night and move on, right?
Well, Illinois then went to Welsh Ryan and lost, 49-43, an ugly slopfest that served as a harbinger. After that, Illinois lost eight of their next nine, effectively taking them out of tournament contention. The Illini's margin of defeat was no smaller than seven points in any of those losses.
The Illini defense held up okay in those losses, save against Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, against whom they let up 75+. The offense, however, continued to be inconsistent at best, with a penchant for disappearing for long stretches. Outputs like 43 at Northwestern, 46 at Indiana and 39 against Ohio State (admittedly one of the stingiest defenses around, but still) seemed to bring back memories of the tail end of the Weber era, when the talent of the individual parts never seemed to amount to a consistently executing whole.
All that doom and gloom notwithstanding, the Illini bounced back admirably down the stretch, winning five of their last six, the lone blemish being the one game when Michigan rained threes from the sky with impunity. Look at the quality of those wins and you'll actually be fairly impressed: at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Michigan State, at Iowa and Indiana (in the Big Ten tournament). Where was this Illinois team earlier in the Big Ten season?
Of course, Illinois then almost bounced the Wolverines in the quarterfinal round, when a Tracy Abrams jumper in the final seconds landed off the mark. If the Illini had won that game and maybe one more, you could have made a case for them being in the Big Dance.
But basketball is cruel, and Abrams's floater fell short, snuffing out those hopes in an instant.
In the NIT, the Illini would defeat BU in the first round before falling at Clemson, in similarly heartbreaking fashion; Clemson's Rod Hall converted a layup with 10 seconds left, which eventually gave the Tigers a 50-49 win. Once again, the Illini defense was let down by its offense.
- Illinois ranked 8th in the conference during Big Ten play in three-point percentage (30.8 percent).
- Per possession, Illinois was the second least productive offense in the conference at 0.97 PPP.
- Despite having the 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu, Illinois was 7th and 8th in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, respectively. Windex was in short supply.
- Illinois was also second-worst at getting to the line, with 337 attempts on the season--only Northwestern was less effective at getting to the charity stripe (307 attempts).
- Groce's squad's 43.6 assist percentage was good for 10th in the B1G.
- Against, despite Egwu's tall existence, Illinois was just 9th in block percentage.
- With that said, the Illini's defense, as mentioned in the previous section, was actually quite solid when not playing the conference heavyweights. They finished second in steal percentage (10.9), behind only the Buckeyes. Additionally, Illinois was third-best in PPP allowed (1.02). When Wisconsin and Michigan weren't doing their thing, Illinois could usually count on their defense to at least keep the team's head above water.
- I don't know if there has been a player I've referred to as "mercurial" as often as I have shooting guard Rayvonte Rice...but, when all was said and done, Rice finished 9th in the B1G in points per game, 7th in rebounds per game (impressive from the 2-spot), 6th in steal percentage. However, he had a sub-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and was 46th in assist percentage; unlike Nik Stauskas, Rice did not create for his teammates, which I do suppose is an unrealistic thing to ask of even a very solid college shooting guard.
- Freshman running mate Kendrick Nunn will be a good one for the Illini, if 2013-14 was any indication. Nunn finished 7th in true shooting percentage and 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, although he didn't rank highly in anything else. Upon the flip to the conference schedule, his minutes ramped up big time--even though 2013-14 was a disappointment for Illini fans, that experience Nunn gained will prove invaluable going forward.
Luckily for Illinois, only Joseph Bertrand and three-point shooter Jon Ekey departed after this past season. Rice, Abrams, Nunn and Egwu are back, and the Illini will hope to get some grit and toughness and all that good stuff on the boards in incoming power forward Leron Black and Michael Finke. Black, who hails from Memphis, was a four-star recruit to Rivals, boasted offers from, among others: Arizona, Indiana, UConn, Louisville, Memphis, UCLA, Missouri and Baylor. Here's the little scouting blurb on his Rivals page:
Black is a junkyard dog. He competes on both ends of the floor, is a very active rebounder and likes to finish in transition and along the baseline. A bit of a tweener between the three and the four in terms of size and game. Jumper isn't textbook but he's worked hard to keep defenders honest with it from between 12 and 17 feet.
Sounds like exactly what the doctor ordered for the Illini. Unfortunately, Illinois will have to wait another year before the 2015 class arrives, which, Illini fans hope, will include star Lincolnshire, Ill., guard Jalen Brunson, who has been offered by everyone under the sun.
On paper, Illinois gets most of its production back, although Bertrand and Ekey were their second- and third-best three-point shooters by percentage.
With that said, throw in the freshman power forwards, a sophomore Nunn, and two seniors in Abrams and Rice, and you've got some pieces with which to make a run to the tourney. Egwu doesn't seem like he'll magically transform into a truly dominant (for his size) big man, but even a little improvement makes him a much better option at the 5 than a lot of teams have.
So, in Year 1 the Illini went to the tourney under Groce, and Year 2 was certainly a step back. Maybe it's that Michigan loss to Ohio in the first round a couple of years ago that has me still high on Groce's coaching ability, but I do think Illinois will, at the very least, truly find itself of the bubble this season (as opposed to being an upset or two away from maybe being there).
The Illini offense, starting with Rice, needs to be more consistent, but if there's one thing Illinois did well last season, it's play D. If they can keep that going in 2014-15, the Illini should find themselves hovering around .500 in the Big Ten.