CHAMPAIGN — If Joe Lunardi is right, John Groce will be standing on the sideline of a basketball court in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday, March 18 or Wednesday, March 19, 2014, preparing for the jump ball in an NCAA Tournament game against Iowa State.
Lunardi gets paid to polish his crystal ball 12 months of the year and in his most recent gaze he sees the Illini and Cyclones locked in a “play-in” tussle for a 12th seed in the West Regional.
In other words, Illinois is currently viewed as a Big Dance bubble team.
That makes sense given that Illinois is losing 63.8 percent of its scoring and 53.5 percent of its rebounding due to roster turnover. And it makes sense in what is projected to be another strong but shifting power base in the Big Ten Conference. Michigan State is an early pick as a No. 1 seed, Ohio State and Michigan as No. 3s, Wisconsin a No. 4, Indiana a No. 5, rising Iowa as a No. 6 and Illinois scrambling to make the field as a 12th seed.
Lunardi is the best in the business, although no one bats 1.000 when we’re 10 months away from Selection Sunday.
But at least we now have a fairly accurate view of the Illini roster, now that four players have declared their intentions to transfer and coach John Groce has countered by landing three transfers with a fourth presumably on the way.
Once he was a no-show at the team’s May 4 awards banquet, it became clear that Myke Henry was likely to follow Mike Shaw, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde out the door.
There is collateral dam
age whenever there’s a coaching change and not all of it happens instantly. It can take a full season for players and coaches to come to a mutual realization that a player viewed as valuable by the previous coach may not get playing time with the new coach. And every player wants to play.
So Shaw will land at Bradley, Langford at Division II Western Kentucky and Djimde, most likely, at Longwood University in Virginia. Henry has yet to announce his next home.
With Henry’s departure, Groce has an open scholarship for the coming season and we fully expect it to be filled by Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks, a 5-8 point guard who has just one season of eligibility remaining.
Starks, who is Oregon State’s career 3-point leader, is seeking a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA that would allow him to play immediately. The Chicago native wants to move closer to his home, he says, to be near his ailing grandmother, who raised him.
Starks and the Illini appear to have been slow dancing together in the shadows, waiting for the Henry matter to clear up, which it did this week.
If Starks is aboard, then the roster for 2013-14 is finalized and for purposes of this discussion, let’s assume it is.
Then we can guess how the starters and top backups align in a projected two-deep.
Barring injury, I think this team has a chance to be better than popular estimations.
Guessing now — before the team convenes for summer workouts on June 7 and long before the team cranks up practice in September — I’m looking at Nnanna Egwu starting at center, Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey at power forward, Joseph Bertrand at small forward, Rayvonte Rice at shooting guard and Tracy Abrams at point guard.
The top backup at each position would be freshman Maverick Morgan of Springboro, Ohio at center, freshman Austin Colbert of Gladstone, N.J. at power forward, freshman Malcolm Hill of Belleville at small forward, freshman Kendrick Nunn of Chicago Simeon at shooting guard and Starks at point guard with freshman Jaylon Tate of Simeon also in the mix at the point.
That’s 11 scholarship players with two others sitting out as NCAA transfers. They would be Seton Hall guard Aaron Cosby and Western Michigan forward Darius Paul, the brother of former Illini Brandon Paul.
Quite obviously, Groce will make his own choices and no one can say how quickly or confidently any of the freshmen will fit in. But they’ll clearly need to contribute and I have high hopes for Colbert, Nunn and Hill.
If Groce can pull this team together and get these freshmen to play with some courage, fans will be watching another fun season.
But looking ahead — to the 2014-15 season — is when we’ll finally see a roster full of Groce-type athletes.
In that season we’ll see how far Egwu, Abrams and Rice have advanced as seniors.
We’ll see how the incoming freshmen mature into sophomores.
We’ll see Cosby and Paul — hungry after sit-out seasons — hit the ground running.
And one should expect more impact newcomers to join the mix. Right now, Champaign Centennial forward Michael Finke is the only recruit to have claimed one of the three scholarships Groce has available for that class.
Groce will be here Wednesday when the Illini Caravan comes to Decatur. Maybe Starks will have officially been added to the roster by then.