With the new year here — just 73 more days till Selection Sunday — managing editor JEFF D’ALESSIO asked eight NCAA know-it-alls to gaze into their
crystal basketballs and tell us what 2014 has in store for John Groce’s Illini.
JAY BILAS, ESPN
“Illinois is an NCAA tournament team on the defensive end but can’t rely on offense to win games. This team has a lot of heart and grit but will have to gain entry into the tournament through its Big Ten play. If Illinois can win its home games, beat the middle to bottom teams in the league and get a couple of big shots, I think this group can make the field.”
STEVE LAPPAS, CBS
“I look at Illinois tape and see them live in their game at UNLV and say: These guys are not very good. Then the game starts and you see how hard they compete and how well they execute when they need either a stop or a basket.
“Expect the Illini to win plenty at home and steal some on the road. Opponents know this team will not beat itself.”
GREG KELSER, BTN
“Duplicating last year’s success will prove most challenging due to the loss of many key pieces. The Illini will count heavily on its youth. Having said that, opponents could be in for a rude surprise ... especially those thinking they will waltz into and out of Champaign without a fight.”
DOUG GOTTLIEB, CBS
“I like Groce a lot — great energy, good system and his players are cohesive in executing their stuff. I think their resume is better than how good they are, meaning their point guard play, talent and likely finish in the Big Ten are all very average.
“The league, while not as deep at the top as last year, is very competitive in the middle with Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana all having flaws of their own. Illinois’ schedule is a beast. My guess: whether they make the NCAAs will come down to not losing to Nebraska and Penn State on the road and if they beat some good teams at home.”
TIM McCORMICK, ESPN
“The Big Ten is top-heavy with Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. I believe Iowa and Michigan are slightly more advanced at this point and will finish fourth and fifth in the Big Ten. That leaves Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana to fight for an upper-division finish and a trip to the NCAA tournament.”
JIMMY DYKES, ESPN
“The 2014 season will end with John Groce continuing to grow the Illinois brand of basketball into a program built on tough kids that show up to ball every night, regardless of the circumstances. Another NCAA tournament bid is scratched out by the Illini.”
SETH DAVIS, BTN
“I must say: When I was in town to broadcast the Valparaiso game for Big Ten Network, I left skeptical that they could make the tournament. I am now becoming increasingly convinced that they will. (Rayvonte) Rice has been a terrific addition, and the chemistry seems to be developing. I am sure that John is frustrated he does not have more depth, but as long as everybody stays healthy, I think they can cobble enough good wins to get there. The W over Missouri is going to look awfully nice in the committee room on selection weekend.”
CLARK KELLOGG, CBS
“The Illini will fight for an upper-division finish in the Big Ten and have the look of an NCAA tournament team. The backcourt is very solid and John Groce is one of the outstanding young coaches in the business.”