No one knows Illinois basketball like beat writer Paul Klee. We gave him 10 questions to answer as he traveled to Ann Arbor:
How is John Groce’s first team going to be different than Bruce Weber’s last team?
You will see changes in everything from philosophy to schemes to substitution patterns to where they recruit. On defense, coaches are tinkering with the idea of playing more zone than you might expect, but their foundation will be man-to-man. The Illinois philosophy was to be solid on defense; the Ohio philosophy was to create steals and be the aggressor. “We want to make teams uncomfortable,” as assistant coach Jamall Walker put it. On offense, you will see a focus on ball screens and spacing and more three-point shots and free throw attempts. Remember, though, it’s doubtful you will see the full John Groce system until Year 2 or Year 3. The first season is going to be a toned-down, safer version to fit a roster short on ball handlers. But Groce’s style fits his personality: aggressive and confident.
Is Brandon Paul going to lead the Big Ten in scoring?
Here’s what Brandon Paul said about it: “I definitely think it’s a possibility. I don’t doubt my scoring ability at all. Personally, that’s not like an individual goal I have. I just want to play my game. With this system it definitely opens up more scoring opportunities. But that’s not something I’m going to focus on going into the season.” In this system Paul has the green light. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing for the Illini if he does. In the 14 games that followed Paul’s 43-point outburst against Ohio State, he averaged 15.7 points. Illinois went 2-12. In the 14 games that preceded the Ohio State game, he averaged 12.3 points. Illinois went 11-3. Sure, the level of competition was softer (Coppin State, Cornell). But it’s safe to say Illinois was playing better basketball before Ohio State than after it. Groce isn’t scared to lean on a central scorer, however. His teams had one player average more than 15 points in seven of the past eight seasons. That should be a given for Paul. But his senior season will be defined by wins, not points.
What’s it going to take for Illinois to win its first Maui Invitational?
A hot hand and a little help. Recent champions often rode the prowess of an individual (Kemba Walker, UConn; Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga; Ty Lawson, North Carolina; Kyle Singler, Duke). Illinois has Brandon Paul, who’s streaky enough. North Carolina is the best team in the field, but the Tar Heels figure to get a challenge from deliberate Butler or physical Marquette in the semis. Still, it’s rare a low “seed” will win the game’s best nonconference tournament. The past eight champions read like a Who’s Who: Duke, UConn, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, UConn, North Carolina.
Is the Big Ten going to make it four in a row against the ACC?
Yes, book it. The Big Ten has more depth and the matchups are favorable. We see an 8-4 edge for the Big Ten. That was the score last season, with the Big Ten winning 6-5 in 2009 and 2010. This season is slightly different, however, in that the Big Ten appears to be stronger than the ACC at the top. The Big Ten simply was deeper the past three years.
Is Tracy Abrams going to repeat as team MVP?
After becoming the first true freshman to win team MVP honors, the Illini’s toughest player is a shoo-in to be named a captain. The staff has five votes for the captains; the players have 14. Why mention the captaincy? Groce has established criteria for what he demands in a team captain. Players will remember those criteria when they vote for a team MVP. A lack of veteran leadership was a significant downfall during last season’s collapse. And for these Illini to be successful, they need a senior to emerge as a co-MVP, at the least. Final answer: Yes, and Abrams will share the award with Sam McLaurin and/or Brandon Paul.
When does John Groce lose his first game at Illinois?
The easy guess is somewhere in the latter rounds of the Maui Invitational, where Texas, North Carolina, Butler or Marquette are waiting. But here’s a vote for USC — the opener in Maui. Coaching friends in the Pac-12 believe the Trojans have the talent to compete for an NCAA tournament berth. That may come as a surprise since USC was 6-26 last season. But Kevin O’Neill welcomes six new players, including high-scoring Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell, and three players that missed all or some of last season due to injury. Most important, it’s an older roster, so it won’t take as long for the pieces to fit together. Don’t be surprised if USC is favored on Nov. 19.
How will the current senior class be remembered?
We’ll know in March. Legacies often are determined by the final season. It’s what people remember. There are individual examples, such as Chester Frazier going from booed to beloved with a No. 5 seed in the 2009 NCAA tournament. And there are collective examples, such as Lon Kruger’s 1997-98 Illini that had five senior starters and didn’t enter the Top 25 poll until mid-February. Those Illini finalized their legacy with a co-Big Ten title. Illinois’ recruiting class of 2009 has missed the NCAA tournament more often (twice) than it has won a tournament game (once). Earning an NCAA tournament berth this season would outweigh any struggles of the past three seasons.
How many wins does Illinois need to make the NCAA tourney?
Ten — in the Big Ten. However, a winning conference record doesn’t guarantee an NCAA tournament berth. The 2009-10 Illini were 10-8 in conference play and traveled to Stony Brook for the NIT. But 10 wins in the nation’s toughest conference should be enough to earn a tournament berth, barring a total meltdown in the nonconference.
What Big Ten teams will make the field of 68?
Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin make it. One of Purdue, Iowa or Illinois will be selected for a play-in game. That’s seven, a rarity. The Big Ten has placed seven teams in the Dance twice in the past 20 years.
Who’s the best quote on the Illini roster?
Devin Langford’s dry humor (and spontaneous rapping) is on the short list. Tyler Griffey’s the voice of reason. Tracy Abrams is a sophomore of few words, but he makes them count. And there are other go-to media favorites. We’ll go with the new (and old) guy — Sam McLaurin. The Floridian explained his transition to cold-weather Illinois: “Online classes are great. All I do is go from the gym to the crib. Got my automatic starter (on his car). I’m good to go.” His commitment to Illinois came down to, among other things, a memorable steakhouse on his official visit: “I haven’t gone back yet, because I remember looking at the prices on the menu.” And his expressive use of Twitter — and whether his account will be policed: “They said just be yourself and be careful what you tweet.” Here’s hoping McLaurin is talking on the dais at the NCAA tournament in March.
How happy is Illinois to have the Big Ten tourney back in Chicago?
It’s definitely a bonus. The last time the Big Ten tournament was held in Chicago — in 2007 — Illinois sold 1,570 tickets through its box office. And there were thousands more Illinois fans in the United Center. From 2008 to ’12, Illinois averaged around 1,000 tickets for the tournament in Indianapolis. Plus, Illinois has two tournament titles. Both were won in Chicago.