G/F: Brandon Paul (Sr)/Myke Henry (So)/Devin Langford (Fr)
SG: D.J. Richardson (Sr)/Joseph Bertrand (Jr)
PG: Tracy Abrams (So)
Gone: C-Meyers Leonard, PG-Sam Maniscalco, G-Crandall Head (transfer-SMU)
Bruce Weber was shown the door as Illinois Fighting Illini head coach after several years of underachieving and replaced by Ohio's John Groce. There is still decent enough talent left on the Illini roster, but can Groce right the ship in his first year in Champaign?
Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will hope to turn things around in their senior seasons. Both players have shown flashes of brilliance including Paul's 43-point outburst in Illinois' upset of Ohio State last year, but have been unable to string together consistently productive performances. Neither player has fully grasped a leadership role quite yet, and each must each play at a high level this season if the Illini plan on returning to the dance.
While Paul and Richardson are each capable of running the offense, Tracy Abrams should resume his role as starting point guard. He failed to wow in his freshman campaign but is the only true floor general on the roster. Long athletic wing Joseph Bertrand could start as well if Groce decides to use a four-guard lineup, and even if he does come off the bench, Bertrand will play a major role. Myke Henry was seldom used last year, while Devin Langford redshirted. Each player will compete to earn minutes on the wing.
Illinois has to replace big man Meyers Leonard up front, who in my opinion, was misused by Weber a year ago since he spent half his time on the court setting screens on the perimeter. (Plus, I just don't think Leonard is that good.) Minutes are pretty much up for grabs in the frontcourt even with Tyler Griffey back in the fold.
Griffey has been a solid role player the past couple of seasons, but hasn't done anything to show that he deserves a starting role. Sophomores Nnanna Egwu, Mike Shaw, and Ibby Djimde struggled to acclimate themselves to the college game and will be in the running for starter minutes. So, too, will transfer Sam McLaurin, who becomes immediately eligible since he already received his undergraduate degree from Coastal Carolina. McLaurin will bring some energy to the floor, but doesn't help this Illinois team with what will be its biggest weakness: low post scoring.
Groce did pick up a commitment from Drake transfer shooting guard Rayvonte Rice, who will have two years of eligibility left. He will sit out this season, but should help fill the void left behind by Paul and Richardson for the 2013-2014 season along with highly touted freshman Kendrick Nunn.
I think this season will come to the difference between Groce's coaching ability compared to Weber's. The Big Ten is stacked with quality talent at the top, so the Illini will face an uphill climb to move into the upper half of the standings. Paul and Richardson will have to be phenomenal, while the bigs must develop and provide some sort of inside scoring for that to happen.
Player to Watch: Brandon Paul, SG
Paul possesses all the ability: a smooth stroke, swift handles, and the athleticism to rise at the rim. The mystery remains why he hasn't been able to put it all together during his three years at Illinois. A lot of it has to do with his mental game, but improving his shot selection and decision-making will also help him mature as a senior.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/16 at Hawaii
11/19 vs. USC (Maui Invitational)
11/20 vs. Texas/Chaminade (Maui Invitational)
11/21 vs. North Carolina/Mississippi State/Marquette/Butler (Maui Invitational)