Thinking back to the 2013-14 season, the glaring weakness Illinois exhibited on its way to a 20-15 campaign and a second-round exit in the NIT was easy to spot.
It was shooting. Three-point shooting, in particular.
But worry not, help is on the way.
You’ve heard about the credentials of transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks, who sat out last season after coming to Illinois from Seton Hall and Oregon State, respectively.
Starks is the Beavers’ all-time leader in three-pointers made (185) and shot 40 percent from long range.
Cosby shot 39 percent from three in two years with the Pirates in the old Big East.
And he’s had a chance these last couple of weeks to put his skills back to use in a competitive environment, playing with a team of other college players in China for a group called Sports Reach, a Christian organization based out of Kentucky.
Cosby’s dad first contacted Illinois coach John Groce about the possibility of him participating in the tour.
“He thought it might be a good opportunity and wanted to know what I thought about it,” Groce said. “I thought it would be great for him because, obviously, he hasn’t played in a full year. You get a chance to get some of the rust off, and I thought that would be good.”
There didn’t appear to be much rust in Cosby’s game, playing against professional teams from Lithuania and China on the trip.
He averaged 18.1 points per game, 3.8 rebounds and shot 34.7 percent (25 of 72) from three-point range and 34.8 from the floor (54 of 155), playing nine games in 10 days.
The 6-foot-3 guard from Louisville, Ky., led the team in scoring four times, scoring 27 points twice and 26 in another game.
He made eight three-pointers in one game and had another with five makes from long range.
“Along with Starks, he’s a high-level shooter, so that’s really going to help our team,” Groce said.
Cosby’s success in the Far East didn’t come as much of a surprise to Groce, who had seen him up close in practice playing against Illinois’ first team much of the year.
Oftentimes he was imitating the opposition’s best player or scorer, and that freedom helped elevate his own level of play.
“He’s worked really hard. He’s gotten stronger,” Groce said. “I thought at the end of the year, very similar to (Rayvonte Rice) in Year 1, there were times in practice where he was dominant at the end of the year.”
But it’s not just his offensive game.
Illinois was one of the better defensive teams in the country last season, and Cosby will fit right in with that philosophy playing the 2 and the 3 spots.
“He competes, and he can defend, especially on the ball,” Groce said. “His physical strength, his toughness, his competitiveness will make him a good defender.”
Like Rice, Illinois’ top scorer last season after sitting out a year, Cosby was honored at the year-end banquet with one of the team’s most-improved player awards.
At every turn during his first year at Illinois, Cosby has excelled, and that’s got his coach excited about what he can contribute on the floor with his two remaining years of eligibility.
“He enjoys how we do things. He loves the environment both in the locker room and on campus,” Groce said. “He’s done well in school, he’s done well on the court, he’s done well in the weight room. He’s done some really good things.”
The trip abroad wasn’t just about hoops. Cosby and his teammates, which included players from Kentucky, TCU and Texas Tech, participated in community events, giving back to the locals.
They also got a chance to visit some landmarks, including the Great Wall of China.
“I thought the cultural experience would be good for him, get him outside his comfort zone a little bit,” Groce said. “The whole concept of Reach (is) to have some impact on the communities they were visiting in China. Give a little bit, I thought would be good and just overall kind of open his eyes a little bit. I’ve been able to communicate with him a little bit through (free text-messaging app) Viber. I’m looking forward to talking with him in greater detail when he gets back.”