2012-13 Preview: #7 Illinois Fighting Illini

Bruce Weber’s teams have had plenty of talent, but were unable to get the job done. After another flat performance in 2011-12, Weber’s contract was bought out and off to Kansas State he went.

Enter John Groce. The young, energetic coach comes to Champaign from Ohio University, one of last year’s NCAA tournament darlings.

Illinois returns several experienced players, including two senior guards and a number of talented sophomores ready to show their progression. We believe there are reasonable scenarios under which the Illini fight their way into the NCAA tournament this year.

The 2012-13 season isn’t a bad entry point for Groce. If he gets the right things out of the right guys, Illinois could be a solid team.  There are reasons to be skeptical, but the Illini faithful aren’t being unreasonable if they have expectations of a good year.

Glass Half Full

Talented roster

Center Meyers Leonard left for the NBA, but the resume of the guys on the 2012-13 roster is fairly impressive.

Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) is the most important player for this team. Expected to play point guard quite a bit, the 6’4” Paul is capable of huge games but has been inconsistent and inefficient.

Last season in consecutive games against the porous defenses of Northwestern and Nebraska he averaged 10.5 points on 36.0% effective field goal (eFG) shooting. Next up was Ohio State and Paul led Illinois to a win with 43 points on a 100% eFG performance (including 8/10 3FG; he also grabbed 8 rebounds and went 13/15 from the line).

Paul has never had a great season shooting the ball and has career eFG% is just 45.0% (including 32.4% 3FG). Better decision making as a senior could mean better shooting, fewer turnovers and inclusion in the discussion of first team all-conference players.

Also in the backcourt is 6’3” senior D.J. Richardson (11.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 71 3FGM, 34.8% 3FG). Like Paul, you’re never confident about what D.J. will give you on any given night, but he did have a higher offensive Value Add last year than any other returning player. Richardson is capable of improving his 3-point shooting and having a strong senior year.

The other senior on this year’s squad is 6’9” forward Tyler Griffey (4.9 ppg, 3.3rpg). He’s only made 27 3-pointers in his career and shot just 31.0% 3FG, but between his offensive rebounding and unproven scoring ability that we believe is there, Griffey could be a nice piece.

Joe Bertrand is a 6’6” junior guard averaged 20.1 mpg and 6.5 ppg and looked very good at times last season. He’s had a history of injuries, but when healthy can be a player.

6’11” sophomore center Nnanna Egwu averaged just 9.8 mpg as a freshman. He was rated #78 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) and the potential is there for a nice step forward this season. Egwu may struggle to stay on the court even if he’s playing well due to poor fouling habits, but that’s something Groce and staff will work with him on.

Mike Shaw (#65 RSCI), Myke Henry (#66) and Tracy Abrams (#69) were all respected class of 2011 recruits. Abrams, a point guard, was the only one of the three to log many minutes but struggled. The 6’6” wing Henry may be poised for the biggest year of the three as a sophomore, but eventually 6’8” Mike Shaw will be ready to contribute as a strong overall player. As of now Shaw has work to do, but he is an elite rebounder and may earn more floor time because of it.

Others who could contribute include Devin Langford, a 6’7” redshirt freshman wing, and senior center Sam McLaurin, a quality graduate transfer who stands 6’8” and averaged 10.0 ppg and 7.5 rpg last season at Coastal Carolina. McLaurin is a quality player and his defensive and rebounding ability could make a difference for the Illini. Definitely a player to watch.

3-point field goal shooting

Things can’t get much worse. Illini other than Paul and Richardson shot a miserable 24.9% from 3-point range in 2011-12. The following table illustrates team 3-point shooting for Illinois and their opponents last year:

Overall Conference
Fighting Illini 30.4% 29.5%
Opponents 37.9% 40.1%

Glass Half Empty

These guys have already had their chance

An experienced senior guard duo is great to have, but as juniors who were playing with a 7’1” NBA lottery pick, they weren’t nearly good enough. While there is room for Paul to improve, D.J. Richardson may have already shown his best in terms of usage and efficiency.

Coaching questions

Coach Groce may come out of this season looking like a genius, but he’ll need to earn it by making the right decisions.

For example, there’s an argument to be made that playing at a faster tempo could help Illinois this year, but this is a squad that had a turnover percentage approaching 21%.

Meyers Leonard was a force on the boards (defensive rebounding especially), but he’s gone. Mike Shaw can get rebounds, but is he far enough along to warrant big minutes? Are McLaurin, Griffey and Egwu better options?

Who takes the point for the majority of the minutes – Paul or Abrams?

How close are Henry and Shaw to being in the regular rotation?

Other Comments

  • New assistant coach Paris Parham played and coached at Minnesota State. He’s a Chicago guy who should be able to help with recruiting relationships in basketball-rich Illinois.
  • 2013 Recruiting: We’re huge fans of 6’1” Kendrick Nunn and his commitment to Groce was big. Granted, the relationship goes back to Groce’s time at Ohio, but there were some elite schools that had made great progress with Nunn as well.  Also from Illinois are 6’5” wing Malcolm Hill and 6’1” point guard Jaylon Tate. Big 6’10” center Maverick Morgan from Ohio has also given his pledge to the Illini.

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
“(Meyers) Leonard has some NBA scouts drooling even though he’s nowhere near ready. At 7’1″, 245 pounds with a lot of basketball skill, though, it’s easy to see why there is high interest. He averaged just over 8 mpg as a freshman, but should have a lot more confidence this season and knows what’s needed is really quite simple – “just be a beast”, he says.”

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