Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
After nine years under Bruce Weber, Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini will look to John Groce to lead their return to prominence.
|Last Year||17-15 (6-12)|
|Coach||John Groce, 1st year|
Meyers Leonard, Sam Maniscalco
|Who's Back||Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Joe Bertrand|
|Who's New||Sam McLaurin, Devin Langford|
For all the talent Bruce Weber had assembled for what would prove to be his final season in Champaign, the 2011-2012 season failed to live up to expectations. A team that was laden with quality Big Ten players finished 17-15 overall and a measly 6-12 in conference was the straw that broke the camel's back. Weber was fired after nine seasons in charge of a program that began ever so well under the now-Kansas State head coach's tutelage.
After the failed courtship of VCU's Shaka Smart, athletic director Mike Thomas finally got John Groce (pronounced "Gross") to replace Weber. Groce, who led Ohio University to three postseason appearances in four years (including a trip to last years Sweet 16), has a reputation as a helluva recruiter. He was named Rivals' Recruiter of the Year in 2006 as an assistant at Ohio State, the 'architect' of the Greg Oden/Daequan Cook/Mike Conley/David Lighty class that helped the Buckeyes to the national championship game. And now he's back in the Big Ten. /gulp
Groce inherits an Illinois squad that should be able to compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament based on the numbers above. The Illini return the third highest percentage of scoring in the conference. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Tyler Griffey are talented and experienced seniors that form a solid foundation and a large chunk of the returning minutes. However, Paul and Richardson will need to improve on their shot selection this season, as both shot below 40% from the field last season.
Losing Meyers Leonard to the NBA hurts, but Groce is hoping Coastal Carolina post-graduate transfer Sam McLaurin (who announced his transfer with some inspiration from Lee Corso) will help fill the void along with 6-11 sophomore Nnanna Egwu. The Ilini do not have any significant freshmen coming in from the 2012 class, although Groce is making some headway in 2013.
While Illinois returns a good amount of its scoring and minutes played from last season, it remains hard to see them as serious competitors near the top of the Big Ten. Paul and Richardson are certainly capable of big performances, but until they find a way to consistently perform at a high level, the ceiling is limited. While Groce could end up being a great hire in the long term, a first year appearance in the Big Dance and a mid-conference finish may be the highest the ceiling extends for Illinois.
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