Tate: This could get bumpy
Astute basketball reasoning lies behind Illini home scheduling that begins with Friday-Sunday games against Alabama State and Jacksonville State.
Not exactly crowd-attracting rivals ... but this is part of the rebuilding process. John Groce needs time and winnable games as he tries to solve a complex puzzle. He has 10 new pieces, three of whom are sitting out this season. It is hard to tell, from practice to practice and game to game, who belongs.
So the Illini are, as you surely realize, in a four-corners stall, waiting for youths to mature and more talent to arrive. If your measuring stick is the power conferences, there’s plenty of that coming up in December road trips and the 18-game Big Ten campaign that follows.
For now, hang on because it’s bound to be a bumpy, streaky ride, much like we saw in the 83-67 exhibition win Sunday against Northwood. The Illini led by 24, trailed by 1 and, thanks to a string of clutch threes by Rayvonte Rice, won by 16.
Flaws were exposed. Northwood attacked the offensive glass in the first half, spearing 12 offensive boards. Two Northwood veterans, 6-foot-8 Wes Wilcox and 6-7 Will Bowles, combined for 41 points and 20 rebounds, and were the most productive big men on the court.
That’s worrisome. Nor can we feel confident about three-point shooting, often a difference maker in close games. Arc-shooting could go either way: Rookies never shoot as well as they will in later years. Rice, whose bull’s-eyes lifted Illinois out of a 2-for-22 shooting slump Sunday, appears improved, but the record shows he shot 29.5 and 24.1 percent from the arc in two seasons at Drake.
The excitement surrounding Illini basketball isn’t connected with Friday’s opener but rather with expectations of what is down the road.
Committed recruits Quentin Snider of Louisville and Leron Black of Memphis are four-star pickups, according to Rivals and Scout. And now Groce is taking a daring and dangerous step in tangling with the likes of Kansas and Kentucky at the five-star, one-and-done level.
Illini Nation is holding its collective breath in anticipation of what Curie’s Cliff Alexander announces a week from Friday. Having eliminated Michigan State, Alexander is believed to favor Illinois and Kansas.
Looking to the junior class, Groce is deeply engaged with a trio of five-stars: 6-9 Texan Elijah Thomas, Cleveland’s 6-8 Carlton Bragg and 6-5 Charles Matthews of Chicago St. Rita.
According to Scout, Bragg is No. 9 in the country, Thomas No. 11 and Matthews No. 14. Rivals has Thomas No. 9, Bragg No. 10 and Matthews No. 11. Groce’s travels have carried him to all three as they list Illinois among the schools under consideration.
It is extremely significant and a historic change that finds, since the arrival of Groce, the UI on the map for out-of-state superstars. Furthermore, Scout reports that No. 18 Montague Gill Caesar of Huntington Prep, and No. 22 Eric Davis of Saginaw, Mich., have the Illini on their lists. In the junior class, those two are ranked higher than Snider and Black in the senior class, further evidence that Groce is lifting his sights as he eases back on the previously needed transfer strategy.
It’s intriguing to look 12 months ahead and imagine who’ll emerge from the backcourt pack when former double-digit scorers from Seton Hall and Oregon State, Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks, are eligible. Two young guys, Jaylon Tate and Mike LaTulip, looked good Sunday, Tracy Abrams will be back, and you’ll have Snider, Rice and Kendrick Nunn, and maybe Malcolm Hill.
That’s possibly nine solid players competing for three slots. Not LaTulip, you say? Well, maybe not, but the walk-on can shoot, can handle and is a formidable 175 pounds. I’ve seen worse players on Big Ten teams.
The point of today’s treatise is this: Groce has patched this squad together, and a fifth-year transfer (Jon Ekey) is being employed for the third straight year.
Now that he’s settled in, Groce is shooting for the moon. He’ll challenge Ohio State for Bragg. He’ll try to haul Thomas out of Texas. Succeed or fail, the Illini are seen in a new light.
If the Illini win games and reach the NCAA tournament this season, that will be a bonus. But even if they don’t, the coach has Illini basketball advancing to a point where he won’t need to play November opponents with “State” as part of their name. Bring on the real Alabama ... just not the one that Nick Saban coaches.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.