Big Ten basketball previews: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten basketball previews: Illinois Fighting Illini
November 7, 2013, 9:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

The story this year for the Fighting Illini will be their overwhelming amount of new players. They have nine, to be exact.

But a close second in the race for the main storyline is Joseph Bertrand, the senior guard who will be one of several Illinois players tasked with filling the large shoes of departed mainstays Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.

Bertrand appeared in all but one of the team's games a year ago, averaging 7.3 points per game. He'll have some help, of course, from fellow returning guard Tracy Abrams, who started in 32 contests a year ago, but it's Bertrand who needs to take on a bigger load and help to replace the 28.9 points per game that left with Paul and Richardson.

[MORE: Groce, Illinois recruiting hard in Chicagoland market]

But it's more than just on the stat sheet where Bertrand will need to step up. With so many new faces in orange and blue this year, John Groce will need Bertrand, along with the junior Abrams and junior big man Nnanna Egwu, to take on a bigger role in the leadership department, as well.

"We need him to take another step," Groce said at Big Ten basketball media day last week. "And more with his vocal leadership. He knows that, will probably allude to that as he's interviewed here today with us. Great kid. Great for the program. Great for our young guys from the standpoint of setting an example of how hard we work and how we do things in the offseason and how we practice and how he treats his body, and Joe's a pro's pro with that stuff. We'd like to see him take another step with the vocal leadership part. And obviously from a production stand point we need him to take a step there as well. There will be more responsibility this year for him in both rebounding, scoring for us, being efficient in a lot of statistical areas, but, again, more vocal leadership than anything."

Bertrand recognizes that challenge, too, that along with his upperclassmen teammates, he needs to help bring the next generation of Illini into the fold.

"I think me, Nnanna and Tracy have been here for a while, we really know how it works," Bertrand said. "Helping them along is really a big thing to get the process moving along faster, and they've been great on picking up on things, the freshmen have been great and also the transfers.

"Helping everybody else along. I definitely want to have a great last year, and they definitely want to have a good year as well. It's going to be a long journey for the freshmen. I know they want to get it started out the right way."

[RELATED: Nine newcomers means season of change for Illini]

Last year

Illinois finished the regular season with a 22-12 mark, with an 8-10 record in Big Ten play. The Illini lost just one game in non-conference play, to Missouri, before stumbling out of the gate in the conference season. Illinois did get to the NCAA tournament and scored a second-round win over Colorado before losing a close third-round matchup to two-seed Miami.

At the helm

John Groce was applauded for his performance in his first season as Illinois head coach last year. He went 13-1 in non-conference play before tripping up in the Big Ten. Though his team did regroup midway through that portion of the schedule and at one point won five straight, kickstarted by a win over then No. 1 Indiana.

[MORE: Ohio State title dream still alive for Zion native Smith]

Departed and returned

The departures of Paul and Richardson will test the Illini. Can they find enough scoring to replace the output of the pair of four-year players? Bertrand and Abrams will try. Aside from that duo, Egwu is the only other returner of consequence, with transfer Rayvonte Rice technically considered a returner despite the fact he sat out all of last season. Rice is a Champaign native who transferred in after two years at Drake.

Fresh faces

The Illini have plenty of newcomers this season, nine of them, five of which are freshmen. The freshmen duo of Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn — who played together as high schoolers at Chicago powerhouse Simeon — are making a splash, but also keep an eye on Belleville East product Malcolm Hill, who Egwu said impressed him the most of any of the Illini's large freshmen class.

"Malcolm Hill, the progress he's made from summer to now, it's unbelievable in terms of his confidence level," Egwu said. "I think college basketball kind of hit him surprisingly. He was like, 'Wow, what's going on?' But he's picked it up. The kid plays hard. He plays hardest of all the freshmen. And in terms of adjusting to his new position at the four, he's done a great job. He's so versatile, and he can really score a lot."

[RELATED: Brust aims to take advantage of senior season with Badgers]

Non-conference tests

Illinois' first real game of note comes Nov. 26, when the Illini travel to take on UNLV in Las Vegas. After that, they open December with games vs. Georgia Tech and Auburn in Atlanta before mid-December games vs. Oregon (in Portland) and Missouri (in St. Louis). Illinois wraps up non-conference play against UIC at the United Center.

Season outlook

Illinois is projected by many to finish in the middle of the Big Ten this year, and a lot would have to go right in order for the Illini to crash the conference-champion conversation. Most of Groce's comments at media day centered on his team getting to know each other, so it could take some time for this group to really gel. But if Bertrand, Abrams, Egwu and a newcomer or two can have big seasons, the Illini could be in the mix.

The Illini tip off their regular season against Alabama State on Friday night in Champaign.

[MORE: For Northwestern, excitement welcomed, patience preached]

This is the first in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.

Thursday, Nov. 7: Illinois and Northwestern

Friday, Nov. 8: Penn State and Nebraska

Saturday, Nov. 9: Purdue and Minnesota

Sunday, Nov. 10: Iowa and Indiana

Monday, Nov. 11: Michigan and Wisconsin

Tuesday, Nov. 12: Ohio State and Michigan State