#144 Illinois Men's Basketball 2016-2017 Preview

Illinois Fighting Illini
2016-2017 Overall Rank: #144
Conference Rank: #12 Big Ten
Coach John Groce had another tough year at Illinois. The team finished 15-19 overall and won a mere five Big Ten games. That is not going to cut it for a program that remembers going to the Final Four. The good news is Tracy Abrams is back for a sixth year of eligibility. He missed all of the last two seasons with injuries. Back in 2013-2014, Abrams averaged 10.7 points and a team high 3.2 assists. If Abrams can stay healthy, and at this point that is a big if, the Fighting Illini finally have a floor leader they can rely on game in and game out.
2015-16 Record: 15-19, 5-13
2015-16 Postseason: None
Coach: John Groce
Coach Record: 77-61 at Illinois, 162-117 overall
Who’s Out:
Khalid Lewis played one year with the Illini and he was a very important player with Abrams on the bench. Lewis, who played at Delaware and La Salle before journeying to Champaign, was never a scorer, but he dished out 3.0 assists per game and made 19 starts last season. The bigger loss is that of Kendrick Nunn. He was dismissed from the team after averaging 15.5 points and 5.0 rebounds as a junior. The backcourt can deal with those losses, but not if the injury bug strikes again.
Who’s In:
Te’Jon Lucas is the lone incoming freshman. The 6-3 point guard should have time to learn behind Abrams, but we have said that for a couple years now about other players and they were forced into action when Abrams went down with an injury. Regardless, Lucas is a talented distributor. He will need to toughen up physically before he is ready to play major minutes in the Big Ten, but for now he could see some time backing up Abrams. The other newcomer is redshirt freshman Kipper Nichols. The 6-6 forward brings a lot of versatility to the table. He has the size and strength to battle in the paint and a decent mid-range jumper too.
Who to Watch:
The strength of the Illini is in the backcourt where Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands figure to start beside Abrams. Hill was the team’s top scoring last season, averaging 18.1 points per game. He also dished out a team high 3.3 assists per game and learned quite a few things about taking care of the basketball. That will only help the backcourt with Abrams running the show and Hill spending more time off of the ball. Hill’s problem has always been consistency, especially when it comes to outside shooting. He never hit more than two three-pointers against a Big Ten opponent, but it will help that Abrams can now set him up. Coleman-Lands is the more consistent shooter. As a freshman last season he knocked down 42.2 percent of his team high 206 three-point attempts. With Nunn gone, most of the outside shooting will fall to Coleman-Lands. The backcourt depth is largely unproven. Aaron Jordan can knock down some shots and D.J. Williams is a highly touted 6-7 sophomore who failed to live up to expectations as a freshman. Walk-on Alex Austin even started six games last season, averaging 1.3 points per game.
Final Projection:
The backcourt may lack proven depth, but it is the frontcourt that has much more to prove. The hope is that the return of Mike Thorne, Jr. will turn things around. But this is a team that allowed the opposition to get way too many easy buckets last year and somebody in the paint has to at least make it a bit more difficult. Thorne averaged 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds in eight games before his season was cut short by injury. Leron Black, a 6-7 sophomore, played in a handful of games before redshirting as well. Back in 2014-2015, Black started ten contests and averaged 5.0 points per game. With the injuries, Maverick Morgan was forced into more action and did well, averaging 8.3 points per game. Michael Finke proved to be a capable scorer as well, connecting on 36.7 percent of his three-point attempts and averaging 7.5 points per game. Unfortunately, neither Morgan or Finke are good rebounders and it will fall on Thorne and Black to turn the -5.5 rebound margin into something positive. They can do that, but neither is much of a shot blocking threat either and it will be tough winning more than five Big Ten games if the opposition averages nearly 75 points per game again.
Projected Postseason Tournament: CBI / CIT / V16
Projected Starting Five:
Tracy Abrams, Senior, Guard, DNP last season
Jalen Coleman-Lands, Sophomore, Guard, 10.3 points per game
Malcolm Hill, Senior, Guard, 18.1 points per game
Mike Thorne Jr., Senior, Center, 12.9 points per game
Maverick Morgan, Senior, Center, 8.3 points per game
By the Numbers:
Scoring Offense: 72.1 (198th in nation, 8th in conference)
Scoring Defense: 74.8 (248, 13)
Field-Goal Percentage: 43.2 (210, 10)
Field-Goal Defense: 46.2 (314, 14)
Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 8.1 (75, 6)
Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 36.3 (103, 6)
Free-Throw Percentage: 74.6 (28, 2)
Rebound Margin: -5.5 (320, 13)
Assists Per Game: 13.6 (148, 8)
Turnovers Per Game: 10.5 (22, 4)
Madness 2016 Men’s Basketball Recruit Rankings:
#162 Te'Jon Lucas