Now that you've digested the NFL draft, what's your interpretation of the Illini landing four of the first 48 picks, at which point the other 11 teams in the Big Ten had combined for two?
It raises the question whether this UI talent was used to its fullest? Or was this draft some kind of fluke?
My first response is that Illinois lacked offensive firepower, particularly after Mikel Leshoure turned pro early. As a second response, I echo the comments of Martin O'Donnell, 2007 Illini All-American who declined NFL options. O'Donnell offers his opinion regularly as an analyst.
"Illinois has good players but not the level of squad depth that you see at Wisconsin and Michigan State, for example," he said. "Those teams simply have more better players. And a lot of them return for their senior season because they see it as a special year to make a run for the championship. Montee Ball is an example. He had a great year at Wisconsin, and he is coming back.
"To keep star players, Illinois needs to climb higher and show the ability to compete in November. That's the stuff players stick around for."
Will they stay or will they go?
I can't bring myself to blame junior Whitney Mercilus for leaving. In one season as a starter, he was spectacular. As a defensive end, his stock will never be higher. He was assured of a first-round selection and big money.
Meanwhile, at Wisconsin, Ball led the nation in rushing with 1,923 yards and scored 39 touchdowns. You'd think, even if he wasn't likely to be a first-round pick, he'd grab the money at a position that has a short shelf life in the NFL. Face it, he won't have any more bargaining power in 2013.
"I looked in the mirror and told myself what I needed to do for me, for my family and for my teammates," Ball is quoted.
It doesn't appear Illini stars take the latter aspect — teammates — into consideration. In the last five years, seven extraordinary athletes have left Illinois with a year of eligibility remaining — Rashard Mendenhall, Vontae Davis, Arrelious Benn, Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson, Leshoure and Mercilus. In most cases, the Illini did not have the quality athletes to replace these NFL-worthy stars. We must conclude that their departures had a great deal to do with Ron Zook's failures, and the retention of stars elsewhere has a lot to do with successes at those schools.
For the record, Mercilus was one of seven Big Ten players cleared by the NFL to enter the draft prior to their final year. One, 366-pound Purdue guard Ken Plue, did not play in 2011. Another, tight end Tiree Eure of Minnesota, flunked out after a rocky juco history. And 5-foot-8 Spartan running back Edwin Baker, who ran for 1,201 yards in 2010, found himself as alternate for 237-pound sophomore Le'Veon Bell in 2011 and turned pro. Of the Big Ten juniors, the only ones drafted in the first two rounds were Mercilus, Iowa tackle Riley Reiff, Wisconsin center Peter Konz and Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
Cupboard not bare at Mizzou
If you think graduation losses will hurt Missouri in the annual Braggin' Rights shootout, take a deep breath and sit down. The Tigers are entering the SEC this year with the most amazing influx of immediate help you'll ever witness. It surely helps to be 30-5, although a glowing record (37-2) didn't give Illinois much of a boost after 2005.
First, consider that the graduation of centers Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore (among seven seniors) left the roster with no one taller than 6-5. Forget that. First of all, 6-8 Laurence Bowers will return from injury.
Last month, Frank Haith added 6-9 center Alex Oriakhi, a member of UConn's 2011 NCAA champions, and Oriakhi will be immediately eligible because UConn has been banned from the tournament next year. Oriakhi was an AAU teammate of Mizzou's Phil Pressey in Boston. And already practicing this past season with Missouri were Pepperdine's three-time scoring leader Keion Bell, 2011 Auburn MVP Earnest Ross and Columbia's Danny Feldman, all ready to play.
I'm just getting started. Haith has eight new faces in the Class of 2012 including 6-10 Stefan Jankovic of Huntington Prep (W.Va.), 6-9 Ryan Rosburg of Chesterfield, Mo., 6-9 juco Tony Criswell, who spent two years at UAB, 6-8 Quantel Denson of Paris JC, 6-9 Aaron Scales of American Basketball Institute, 6-4 Shawn Smith prepping in Connecticut and 6-4 former Rhode Island commit Domonique Bull of The Tilton School.
Now do you understand why college basketball is not my favorite sport? There's too much monkey business. As far as I can tell, Haith will have at least 10 squadmen who switched schools at some point before entering Missouri. And I didn't mention a former five-star wingman out of California, Jabari Brown, who left Oregon after two games and will presumably be eligible at Missouri at some point.
Hot start for Groce
Like most Illinoisans, I didn't know much about John Groce prior to the NCAA tournament. But he's off to a rousing start for a program badly in need of a shakeup. On short notice he has (1) attracted a quality staff and (2) added two key players.
Groce's third staff addition, Isaac Chew, was in the middle of the eye-popping Missouri roundup cited above. Chew was an aide there. It is remarkable that Chew would leave a 30-win operation, and it tells us the UI still has a powerful reputation in the marketplace despite some mediocre seasons. It helps further that Chew hails from Chicago. The Chew-Walker-Ford trio is an upgrade in terms of recruiting and, with Groce an active leader, increases the likelihood of the Illini breaking into Indiana and Ohio for talent.
In just five weeks, with most of the available standouts — emphasis on "standouts" — already spoken for, Groce has made an early recruiting splash.
While it's a stopgap measure, Sam McLaurin is a natural because the 6-8, 230-pound Coastal Carolina player will be immediately eligible, fills a critical need, and his scholarship will be available for the upcoming seniors sought by Groce. This is more than an addition of five fouls for post defense (he set a school record in blocks with 155). He can alternate with upcoming sophomore Nnanna Egwu or play alongside him.
McLaurin averaged seven rebounds in each of the last two seasons, one fewer than Meyers Leonard's 8.2 this season. He is not a perimeter shooter, his percentages of 67.8 in 2011 and 65.2 this season indicating he takes the close-in shots he can make ... averaging 10 points this season. At his best, McLaurin had 16 rebounds and 13 points in a 71-63 defeat of LSU. But the team, after starting 17-5, trailed off to a 2-7 finish.
Right on, Rice
Rayvonte Rice can be an important UI addition if he takes advantage of this transfer year the way Kenny Battle did. Battle was a bear in practice.
First, while Rice's anticipatory reactions are exceptional — he led the Missouri Valley in steals after flashing similar skills for Tim Lavin at Centennial — he needs to tighten up on defense. He can be Sergio McClain if he concentrates on it.
Second, a forceful dribbler who appears to wait his turn to go one-on-one, Rice must learn to integrate his movements within the team concept and work harder without the ball.
Third, he shot 24.5 percent on treys at Drake this past season, and that won't do. We saw Luther Head's accuracy improve dramatically during his injury period, and Rice has a similar opportunity. His strength gives him good range, and his release is sound, so he could become a solid three-point shooter.
"Rayvonte is wired to score and, like most good scorers, he has more than one way to do it," Groce said. "We'll work hard in the next year to help him be more consistent with his shooting."
— While Illini golfers enter the May 14 Springfield qualifier for the U.S. Open, pro Scott Langley will compete in St. Louis where, at age 20, he kicked off an amazing run to share 2010 amateur honors with Russell Henley (16th overall) at Pebble Beach.
— Dan Hartleb's UI baseball program has been set back by juniors turning pro, most recently with Josh Parr, Adam Davis and Corey Kimes leaving early. The likelihood of this happening this year will be decreased (maybe) as the June draft will be reduced from 50 to 40 rounds, and the bonus cap for players after the 10th round will be $100,000. At some point in the future, the draft will include international prospects, further reducing the number of Americans.
— UI athletic director Mike Thomas spent most of the week in Phoenix meeting with Fiesta Bowl and various conference officials, the Illini Club of Phoenix and Illini stalwarts Mannie Jackson and Jerry Colangelo. He said a pertinent question relative to the proposed 2014 football playoff plan is whether the four semifinalists will be separately chosen or part of the bowl formula.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.