Tate: Murky future for Groce, Illini

John Groce’s Illini have embarked on 30 practices in 42 days, and six brave CBS experts have taken a fling on preseason basketball predictions.

This treacherous guesswork attracts readership and provides an idea where your favorite team might fall ... with emphasis on might.

For Illini Nation, many of whom are riding the euphoria of last season’s upswing and summer recruiting successes, it serves to bring us back to reality: Illinois might need more time for the big step forward.

Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are tabbed 1-2-3 in the Big Ten by all six CBS crystal ballers. The trio of Doug Gottlieb, Matt Norlander and Gary Parrish listed Illinois seventh in the 12-team conference, and the other three dropped Illinois to eighth.

Personally, without any substantial data other than eye-balling Groce’s squad, I find myself in a shifting mood and more willing to allay previous doubts. Like the CBS gang, I earlier assumed the heavy graduation losses would cast them into the second division. Now I’m not so sure.

— Maturity factor:

Four graduates and four reserves are gone, but this isn’t a young team. Consider the likely starters. Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey are fifth-year students, Rayvonte Rice is in his fourth year, and Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams are juniors.

— The Groce factor:

The trick is meshing these experienced athletes from divergent backgrounds.

Two years ago Groce led 29-8 Ohio to NCAA victories against Michigan and South Florida before losing to North Carolina in overtime. That’s some coaching.

Last year he revived a sinking Illini program, garnered the program’s second NCAA win in seven years, against Colorado, and fought Miami to the end in a 63-59 loss. More quality coaching.

— Conditioning factor:

In terms of physicality and leaping ability, these are substantial athletes. Bertrand is up 15 pounds with increased upper-body strength. Egwu’s dedication to offseason work has him checking in around 250 pounds. A trimmer Rice is in the best shape of his life. These guys didn’t waste the summer, and Bertrand’s shoulder is no longer a concern.

— Depth factor:

This may be a leap of faith, but the freshmen should offer backup support. That includes big Maverick Morgan, who also has streamlined his body and may be able to provide defense and rebounding in the minutes that Egwu is on the sidelines.

 The nonconference schedule is not overwhelming.

Of the seven home games, the toughest might be Bradley, picked in the midrange of the Missouri Valley.

Valparaiso has been severely weakened, having lost top scorers Ryan Broekhoff (15.9) and Kevin Van Wijk (12.9) and the essential parts of an NCAA team that was eliminated by Michigan State 65-54.

There are six road games.

1. The toughest could be Oregon on Dec. 14 in Portland. The Ducks are picked behind Arizona in the Pac-12, ranging between runner-up and fourth.

2. UNLV, hosting the Illini on Nov. 26, could challenge Boise, New Mexico and San Diego State in the tossup Mountain West.

3. The annual date on Dec. 21 in St. Louis finds a Missouri team tabbed in the middle of the SEC after being hit by key departures, including Illini antagonist Phil Pressey.

4-5. Two early-December trips to Atlanta will find sub-par Georgia Tech and Auburn foes. Five of six CBS experts pick Auburn 14th in the SEC.

6. UIC, the Dec. 28 foe in the United Center, lost three double-digit scorers off a 7-9 team in the Horizon League.

Point is, while Groce is learning about his team and developing his rotation, the pre-Indiana (2 p.m. on New Year’s Eve) schedule should allow the Illini to build some momentum.

And when the Big Ten season rolls around, we might be able to make a more accurate assessment.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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