Illini Basketball Season Preview by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Well, I can’t lie to you. I’m nervous. Turning it over 21 times in an exhibition game against something called West Chester will do that to a guy.

I’m having a hard time picturing the trip to Gonzaga a month from now going very well, but in an effort to accentuate the positive, let’s take a look at some keys to the upcoming season.

You never know; if everything breaks right maybe Selection Sunday won’t be something to dread this year…

The New Guys – While there is some early talk of walk-on Mike LaTulip cracking the rotation, it’s apparent that Sam McLaurin is going to be the newcomer who will most impact the bottom line. The 6’8”, 200 lb. Senior transfer from Coastal Carolina will add some athleticism and rebounding to the front court.

The competition might not have been Big Ten caliber, but Sam averaged 10 points and 7.5 rebounds last season. With the loss of Meyers Leonard, any production from the post will be welcome. Speaking of post play…

The Frontcourt – Early season rotations are far from permanent, but it doesn’t appear Mike Shaw, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde have earned the trust of the new staff. That means, along with the aforementioned McLaurin, big years are needed from Nnanna Egwu* and Tyler Griffey.

Nnanna is a beast, and if you look close enough with orange and blue tinted lenses, you can see some of the physical gifts that have Meyers Leonard currently checking Dwight Howard in the League. However, with one season of sparse minutes, there is nothing to go on but projection.

Tyler Griffey is a different story. I never understood why Tyler spent so much time in Weber’s doghouse, and I believe there is going to be a big difference this season. As long as you can accept the fact that Griffey isn’t going to haul in a ton of rebounds, there is a lot to like.

There is certainly a place in an up-tempo offense, with an emphasis on spacing, for a big with range. If this is going to be a happy season Tyler Griffey will need to be successful.

*On www.fightingillini.com, Nnanna says his favorite player growing up was Deron Williams. Writing about someone whose favorite player growing up is also significantly younger than you will make a guy feel pretty old…

The Guards* – This is really where the rubber meets the road. Coach Groce’s Transition Offense will rely heavily on guard play, which happens to be the strength of the roster. Not to marginalize the contributions of D.J Richardson and Joe Bertrand, who will have to be good if this team is going to compete in the Big Ten, but I think the key will be the other two guys…

D.J. is looking to close out a solid career, one that mirrors the man who was the topic of my last post. D. J. has shot 35% or better from 3 every year of his career; his deep range and Senior leadership will be greatly needed. Joe Bertrand was a revelation last year, showing the ability to play almost anywhere on the floor and get his without getting in the way.

However, this is all going to boil down to how Tracy Abrams and Brandon Paul perform. The Sophomore Abrams was voted team MVP last season, I would assume for good reason. I am not in the locker room, so this is all speculation, but Tracy appears to be the successor to Steve Bardo and Chester Frazier; a point guard, team leader, and glue guy.

Abrams is a guy who will probably never put up gaudy numbers, but will be vital to the success of the team on and off the floor. His ability to take care of the ball and be a coach on the floor will be desperately needed. I think we all know where this is headed though…

*I realize I have given no love to Myke Henry. What can I say? He kind of slipped through the cracks of this preview. Hopefully he’s like a lottery ticket that you forgot about and ends up hitting big.

Brandon Paul – If there is a bid to the 2013 NCAA Tournament, I think it will coincide with Brandon Paul cracking the first round of Chad Ford’s NBA draft projections. My opinion certainly carries some bias, but for the last three years I have been looking at Brandon Paul and picturing him as an NBA talent.

The range on his jumper, the breathtaking athleticism; at the very least, if his head* is in the right place he should be able to carve out a Luther Head-like professional career. The possibility of @BP3 running the point this season is not only good for his future professional career, it is imperative to the potential success of this team.

I’ve done a little homework on the offense Coach Groce runs, and combined with the little bit of hoops knowledge I possess, I am of the opinion that the only way this team thrives is with the ball in the hands of its best player. That player is, and must be, Brandon Paul.

*Pun somewhat intended.

Coach John Groce – We’ve touched a little bit on the dynamic offense. The recruiting looks acceptable at this early date… I was not a big fan of Coach Weber, and have been leading the charge for change for too long. I was among the disappointed that Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens turned the job down.

At first glance, it felt a lot like when Bill Self left; Tom Crean and Thad Matta turned the job down then. If you dig a little deeper, and are willing to take a small leap of faith, it also feels a lot like the hire made on June 9, 2000.

At that time Illinois hired a guy who had just taken Tulsa to the Elite Eight; a guy who showed promise as a charismatic recruiter. If we’re lucky, the fertile recruiting ground in Illinois is getting ready to be locked down by a guy who just took Ohio to the Sweet 16, who as an assistant at Ohio State has a proven track record as a charismatic recruiter, and whose dynamic offense will be attractive for recruits and exciting for fans. Let’s hope we’re in for a good run, and that our next coaching concern will be when Ohio State is looking for a replacement for Matta.

Feel free to email me at jeffreyrthomason@gmail.com. Twitter: @jefft24