Tate: I see an uphill climb for Illini
“Thinking ahead (to postseason tournaments) at this point would inhibit us from being as good as we can be now.” — Illini coach John Groce
It’s the job of every coach to keep players in the moment.
That’s where my business differs. We get to speculate, pontificate and become thoroughly distracted. And with no Illini game at midweek, let’s haul out the crystal ball and look ahead ... way ahead.
It may come as a shock but, when Illinois honors four scholarship athletes (plus walk-on Kevin Berardini) on Saturday, the impact will be greater than any Senior Day among the 12 Big Ten schools.
In a conference deemed to be No. 1 this season, it is also extremely youthful across the board. Among the other 11 teams, no one employs seniors at four of its top seven positions. Illini seniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin number 86 starts. Closest is Wisconsin with Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren.
Stunningly youthful Michigan has only one senior (Matt Vogrich) and he’s way down the bench. Other than Michigan State center Derrick Nix, Ohio State transfer Evan Ravenel, Purdue’s D.J. Byrd and Iowa sub Eric May, those four squads return intact. One senior each. Imagine the experience returning on those clubs.
Groce must replace four veterans who accumulated more than half the points (1,181) and nearly half the rebounds (445) this season.
The coach has one key transfer (Rayvonte Rice) and, at this point, five incoming plebes to compensate for a current freshman class with no scholarship members.
Illinois is the only Big Ten team losing its top two scorers. When the media evaluates conference teams next November, Illinois will be projected in the second division.
Defections abound ... maybe
This is where speculation comes in. The NBA draft and incoming freshmen offer diverse question marks, not to mention development of existing players. These factors raise havoc with predictions.
The draft could rock Indiana, where sophomore Cody Zeller is seen as one of the first three selections (worth $3.5 million and up), and junior Victor Oladipo has rocketed into the Top 10 of mock drafts. But don’t fret about Indiana. The Hoosiers have six incoming recruits including Rivals’ No. 7 player, 6-foot-9 Noah Vonleh of Haverhill, Mass., and another high-ranking recruit in Troy Williams of Oak Hill, Va.
Also likely to take a hit is Michigan. Trey Burke is a first-five All-American and two 6-foot-6 sons of NBA stars, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., already are assured of first-round draft status.
If Indiana and Michigan lose key veterans, look out for Michigan State at the top. Guard Keith Appling’s recent slump relieved concerns that he’ll turn pro, and he is expected to fit in alongside the powerhouse trio of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Branden Dawson.
And before we overlook Wisconsin (which we always do), remember Josh Gasser will rejoin Sam Dekker, Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson in one of the sharper, most accurate backcourt groups.
Groce is asking a lot of his incoming class. He faces 2013-14 shortages in ball handling and post play, and uncertainty at power forward. It is almost as though he is starting over, the four departing seniors leaving such huge holes.
And there is another consideration. How will next season’s team perform in tight situations? Overlooked in the UI’s 20-9 season is the fact that Illinois is 6-1 in games decided by five points or less, and twice won on last-second treys (Hawaii, Gardner-Webb).
Based on season stats, those game-winning shots had one chance in three of going in. Had Richardson and Griffey missed, the team’s NCAA status would look a lot shakier than it does now.
Take Iowa, for example. The Hawkeyes are 17-10, but the Illini’s opponent Tuesday in Iowa City ...
— Fought Indiana to the end before falling 69-65;
— Led Michigan State 56-53 at 1:04 before it got away 62-59;
— Rallied at Purdue to lead in the final minute before losing in OT, 65-62;
— Had Minnesota down 59-57 when Austin Hollins’ trey at :14 turned it for the Gophers.
— Led at Wisconsin 58-55 with 22 seconds showing when another big trey by Jackson tied it, and the Badgers won in 2OT, 74-70.
— Broke ahead of Nebraska by 16 but, with a late 58-52 margin, scored just one field goal in the final 4:50 and fell 64-60.
The Hawkeyes lost five games in which they led in the final seconds. By contrast, Illinois has gone through the season with no reversals of that nature. The Illini won every game in which they led in the final minute or minutes.
As we know, these things go in streaks for which there is no explanation. Just another of the mysteries that make it so hard to prognosticate.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.