The day after the Fighting Illini lost in men's basketball to Clemson, everyone immediately started talking next year and giving their opinion. |
Last week, Illini coach John Groce talked with the media and gave his prognosis on this season and expectations moving forward to next year.
Waiting this long after the season's end, Groce said, gave him more of a chance to be objective and take the emotion out of things.
"We were playing our best basketball in February and March. You look at statistics; I've watched game film looking for intangibles, chemistry, those types of things," Groce said. "Clearly it wasn't even close — we were playing our best basketball in February and March. We did that the previous year as well. The way our guys played at the end speaks volumes about their character."
This past season Groce usually went nine or 10 players deep and thinks next year's team will be deeper than last, with the transfers and incoming players.
"Competition is at a premium," Groce said. "We've talked about that a lot with our guys; the concept of sacrificing becomes huge. Right now they're working out; we get two hours a week with them; they lift and do a little bit of conditioning. They started to play a little bit this week."
The three new players who sat out this past season are the ones fans can't wait to see take the court, and 75 percent of the reason I picked them to finish fifth in the conference next year. Those players are Ahmad Starks from Oregon State; Darius Paul, from Western Michigan; and Aaron Cosby checking in from Seton Hall. All three have made great strides in practice the same way junior Rayvonte Rice did when he transferred in from Drake.
"The unique thing we did starting about mid-January, we decided we were going to have a scout team and imitate the other team's offense," noted Groce. "But they're not as talented as Ahmad, Darius and Cosby. We put those guys together, different guys had to play with them depending on the week. The thing that stands out the most with the three guys is their ability to score. All three are double-figure scorers in their careers. Two of them are really good shooters as well as scoring. I thought this year at times we struggled to score and needed more consistency with that; same thing with shooting. I think they will add to that along with experience."
With Illinois not making the NCAA tournament this year, the naysayers aren't giving enough credit to how the Illini finished the year or the three transfers and two talented freshmen, Michael Finke and Leron Black, both whom received multiple postseason awards because of their play on the court. Next season Illinois should be a part of Selection Sunday if things go right.
Kedric Prince is a freelance columnist who writes about the University of Illinois for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.