2016-2017 Season Review
Since Illinois' 23 win season in their first year under John Groce, the Illini's win total had taken a step back each year entering last season. They had went from 23 to 20 to 19 to 15, putting Groce on the hot seat. They started the season by going 10-3 in the non-conference slate with wins over NC State, VCU and BYU. The Illini then went 8-10 in Big Ten play, but lost to Penn State twice and finished the regular season by losing to Rutgers. After getting trounced by Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Groce was relieved of his duties. Illinois did earn a #2 seed in the NIT, where they beat Valpo and Boise State before falling to UCF in the quarter-finals. Jamall Walker coached the team in the NIT.
John Groce was the head coach for the Illini for five seasons, leading them to a 95-75 record during his tenure. They made just one NCAA Tournament and that was in his first year in 2013. Illinois simply didn't play at the level this program is used to during his tenure and that's what his firing came down to. On the court, Illinois loses a ton to both graduation and the transfer market. That includes one of the best scorers in school history in Malcolm Hill. Hill finished third in program history with 1846 points and also grabbed over 600 rebounds. Last season he averaged 17.2/5.1/2.9 and was Second Team All-Big Ten. 6'10 big man Maverick Morgan also graduated. He averaged 9.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Guard Tracy Abrams graduated after averaging 8.6/2.9/2.3 and shot 40.2% from three. Guard Jalen Coleman-Lands decided to transfer to DePaul following a sophomore season that saw him average 8.0/2.3/1.0 and hit a team high 71 threes at a 38.0% clip. 6'11 Mike Thorne graduated after 13.3 MPG last season, averaging 5 points and 3.3 rebounds. Also lost to graduation was guard Jaylon Tate, who averaged 2.4/1.3/2.8 in 15.7 MPG. Wing man DJ Williams, who played 8.8 MPG in 17 games, decided to transfer and use his last two years of eligibility at George Washington.
6'7 junior Leron Black is the leading returning scorer and rebounder. He averaged 8.1 PPG and 6.3 RPG (team high). 6'10 junior Michael Finke averaged 6.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and also hit 37 threes at a 41.1% rate. 6'6 sophomore Kipper Nichols sat out the fall semester after transferring from Tulane. In 21 games he averaged 4.9 PPG and 2.9 RPG in just 13.6 MPG. He was also 12 of 27 from three (44.4%). Te'Jon Lucas, a 6'1 sophomore, played 20.7 MPG and averaged 4.8/1.9/3.1. 6'5 junior Aaron Jordan played 6.9 MPG in 24 games.
Illinois made the big, surprising hire when they were able to poach Brad Underwood away from Oklahoma State just a day after his Cowboys lost in the NCAA Tournament. Underwood has been a D1 head coach at Stephen F Austin and Oklahoma State. In his three seasons at SFA, the Lumberjacks went 89-14, winning the Southland regular season and tournament title all three years (lost just one conference game). They won in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2016. He left for Oklahoma State and turned them around from a 12-20 record to a 20-13 record and NCAA Tournament appearance last season. Underwood is a proven winner and an excellent hire in my opinion. With so many departures, Underwood brings in a boatload of newcomers this season. His 2017 recruiting class is ranked 29th in the nation and 4th in the Big Ten by 247Sports. Mark Smith is a 6'5 four star SG that is the 5th rated player out of Illinois. Smith, who was Mr. Basketball in Illinois, is high IQ shot maker with good size. Trent Frazier is a 6'2 four star PG that is the 6th rated player out of Florida. Frazier can get to rim quickly and also has a good left handed stroke from behind the arc. DaMonte Williams is a 6'2 three star PG that is the #7 player from Illinois. He is an athletic, physical guard that can score it. Greg Eboigbodin is a 6'9 three star PF that has a high motor and a massive 7'3 wingspan. Matic Vesel is a 6'9 forward from Slovenia that is a skilled, long big that can run the floor. Underwood also has graduate transfer Mark Alstork available this season. A 6'5 guard from Wright State, Alstork averaged 19.0/4.7/3.5 and hit 70 threes at a 38.7% clip last season. He was a First Team All-Horizon selection.
The last few years have been disappointing for Illinois fans, so bringing in a coach that just wins has to be exciting. They'll be extremely young and inexperienced this season, but they definitely have some solid pieces to start building around. There's going to be a lot of growing pains this season, so Illini fans should keep their expectations low. I think cracking the top 10 in the Big 10 would be a solid accomplishment for this team.