We know Nnanna Egwu will be Illinois’ starting center when the season tips Nov. 8 at the State Farm Center against Alabama State. What many have been wondering, however, is who’ll get the nod should the junior need a break. “Right now, we have three guys that are eligible to play this season that are learning the 5, and that’s Egwu, (Maverick) Morgan and (Austin) Colbert,” coach John Groce said. Morgan is more of a true center; Colbert is a natural 4 but will fill in if necessary as a center.
Morgan, the 6-foot-10 rookie from Ohio, focused on gaining weight through his senior year of high school, beefing up to about 260 pounds as he arrived at Illinois in June. In an effort to improve his body composition, he’s lost weight and dropped his body-fat number by 6 percent. “I’m about 240 now,” he said. “I feel a lot better, and it’s really helped. Basketball has been fun. It’s different, a lot tougher than high school. I’m adjusting. Going up against Nnanna every day is a good way to do that.”
With 11 players eligible this season, Groce is going to have to get creative with his lineups. He has players who can play multiple positions, but the veterans are doubling up. For example, Tracy Abrams can play the 1 and the 2. Rayvonte Rice can play the 2, 3 and 4 if needed, as can Joseph Bertrand. With the freshmen, who are also versatile, Groce prefers to focus their efforts on one position. “Guys that are younger, we’ve tried to give them confidence by teaching them one position with our eyes on teaching them maybe some secondary positions as they continue to graduate and get a little bit better at the current position they’re learning,” Groce said. “I’d like to be as flexible as possible; I think we’ve got one of those teams.”
Malcolm Hill was a prolific scorer in high school, scoring 2,067 points to leave Belleville East as the program’s all-time leader. At some point in his Illinois career, the 6-6 swingman will show his natural penchant for scoring. Just not yet. “Defensive rotations and rebounding is something I’ve learned you’ve really got to focus in on in college because the athletes are much bigger and stronger than they were in high school,” Hill said. Groce said there’s an easy formula for players who want to pick up minutes early in their careers: “Take care of the basketball and defend,” he said.
Late last season, Bertrand wasn’t himself. A shoulder injury forced him to sit out the Big Ten finale at Ohio State and he played the Big Ten and NCAA tournament games with a wrap on the banged-up right shoulder. He had surgery in early April to repair what turned out to be a torn labrum and spent the offseason recovering from it. His legs got stronger, and Bertrand bulked up his upper body while lifting weights with one arm most of the time. He enters his final season at about 210 pounds, 15 more than his playing weight from a year ago. “I’ll probably stay around 205, but it’s been good. It will help when I’m going into the lane and I can be able to handle the contact better,” he said.