Young, thin roster creates questions at Illinois

CHAMPAIGN — No one expected what John Groce pulled off in his first season at Illinois.

A 23-13 record from a team fresh off a monumental collapse the season before. An appearance in the NCAA tournament.

No one, including Groce, knows just what to expect this time around.

The team that will open the season Nov. 8 against Alabama State won’t look anything like Groce’s first Illini team. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin are gone. The team is thin and young — the roster goes only 11 deep, and five of them are freshmen.

Paul was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points a game, and the one player capable of carrying the team on any given night. There is no obvious replacement.

“Do I think on paper right now we’re as a good a shooting team as we were last year? No,” Groce said. “We’ll play it by ear.”

Five things to watch about the Illini this season:

LEANING ON EGWU: Illinois is heavy on guards — seven of the 11 players on the roster — but short on big men. Only one, 6-10 freshman Maverick Morgan, is considered a pure center. And only three — Morgan, 6-11 Nnanna Egwu and 6-9 freshman forward Austin Colbert — are 6-9 or taller. Morgan and Colbert are both young and raw, so much of this Illini team’s size and ability to play big under the basket will come from Egwu. He started 35 of Illinois’ 36 games last season, averaging 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds a game. But as much as he’s improved his inside game, the junior is a solid outside shot, too.

“We’ll make him a moving target, you know,” Groce said. “He has a great touch.”

COLLEGE EXPERIENCE: Forward Jon Ekey, a graduate-student transfer from Illinois State, came to Champaign along with Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice to bring experience to a young. Teaching is a big part what he’s been asked to do so far, Ekey said, but experience at Drake and Illinois State isn’t quite the same as Big Ten experience. Rice said Groce and his coaching staff started honing his physique and his game through diet, running and shooting and ball-handling drills.

“Coach Groce made that a point as soon as I got here: I had no time to waste,” Rice said, adding that he’s dropped about 35 pounds to get to his current 231 and decreased his body fat from just over 12 percent to about 5 percent.

HOMETOWN KID: Rice grew up in Champaign but was never seriously recruited by Illinois until he’d spent a couple of seasons at Drake. The season he sat out under NCAA transfer rules was hard but did Rice good, Groce said.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy sitting out on a transfer make the number of strides that Ray did,” Groce said, praising Rice for keeping the big picture in focus while he toiled out of sight. “It’s hard for guys, I think, to do that that are 18 to 22 years old.”

The 6-4 Rice has the versatility to play as many as four positions for the Illini, according to Groce. Rice says he’ll be glad to play for the team he grew up watching. “Just coming to those games as a little kid, it just feels great to have the orange and blue on,” Rice said.

FRESHMEN ON THE FLOOR: With almost half the roster made up of freshmen, it’s a given that they’ll play. But the route to regular playing time isn’t what most of the young players might think. “I think most freshmen think the way to get to the floor is to score,” Groce said. “The freshmen who have played are the freshmen who take care of the ball and defend.”

DECEMBER TO REMEMBER? The Illini open with five games they should be able to handle. What comes next is a different story: If you throw in the Nov. 26 game at UNLV, the Illini have a run of nine games ending Dec. 31 that include four NCAA tournament teams from last season, plus games against an SEC school and ACC school (Auburn and Georgia Tech). Then they play in Chicago against an improving in-state opponent in Illinois-Chicago and face Indiana to open the Big Ten on New Year’s Eve at home.

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