Unfortunately for coach John Groce and his charges, the bottom fell out from there. Illinois dropped six of their final eight games of the season, dooming the Illini to another year without a bid to the Big Dance.
The result is an Illinois program that finds itself at a pivotal crossroads this offseason. Once considered a hot commodity on the coaching front, Groce has only taken the Illini to one NCAA Tournament in three full seasons in Champaign-Urbana.
Admittedly, some of Illinois’ woes during 2014-15 weren’t entirely unexpected. Before the season even began, the Illini lost guard Tracy Abrams to a season-ending ACL tear. On top of that, the team had to weather suspensions and injury issues so severe that student manager Ryan Schmidt became a rostered player in late January.
Nevertheless, expectations are always high for Illini basketball. The issue now is whether Illinois can return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 next year. From all appearances, the opportunity will certainly be there.
A young team in 2014-15, Illinois figures to return the bulk of a squad that went 19-14 last season. While the departures may not be many, they are important. Gone will be leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, part-time starter Ahmad Starks and front court anchor Nnanna Egwu.
Fortunately for the Illini, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are still in the fold. The two sophomore guards had nice seasons in 2014-15, finishing second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. If Abrams can come back from his ACL injury, those three give Illinois a strong perimeter presence to build around.
A bigger concern might be the paint, where Illinois needs Leron Black and Maverick Morgan to become consistent threats inside. Egwu offered the Illini their only fully reliable post presence last season and if Illinois wants to return to the NCAAs in 2015-16, better play from their big men will certainly help.
With all that said, Illinois needs to become more consistent. The Illini endured far too many peaks and valleys in their play last season. Offensive efficiency was an issue all season, as was three-point shooting. Depth was never established, which meant Illinois’ core players wore down as the season progressed, leading to some ugly performances down the stretch.
Thankfully, Groce should have plenty of bodies at his disposal next season. Illinois figures to return 10 players from last year and also should get a big boast from the arrival of a talented freshman class that features two top-100 recruits.
For a program that boasts 30 all-time appearances in the NCAA Tournament, 11 Sweet 16 showings and five trips to the Final Four in its history, the Big Dance should be an almost annual occurrence. So far, Groce is 1-for-3. For his own sake, Groce had better be 2-for-4 a year from now.