Philadelphia, PA – Although its top-rated incoming freshman is ranked outside the Top 50 by most scouting services, Illinois has one of the most intriguing recruiting classes in the nation.
John Groce managed to lead the Fighting Illini to the third round of the NCAA Tournament this season before a 63-59 loss to Miami (Fla.) ended his inaugural campaign as the team's head coach.
Returning to the Big Dance in 2013-14 would clearly require a strong recruiting effort by Groce and his staff as Illinois graduated Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin, who accounted for 58.2 percent of the team's scoring.
The program also will be moving forward without senior guard Kevin Garardini, Ibby Djimde, Devin Langford and Mike Shaw, who all elected to continue their collegiate careers elsewhere. Myke Henry joined the list of players departing from the Big Ten school as well, which left Illinois with only Joseph Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, Mike LaTulip and Tracy Abrams from last season's up-and-down but ultimately successful unit.
Abrams, who averaged 10.6 points and a team-best 3.4 assists per game, is the only returner with a proven knack for scoring. Bertrand showed he can be efficient by hitting on 50.2 percent of his field goal attempts as a junior, but he has a long way to go before his name will appear on the conference's scoring leaderboard.
Despite losing a strong portion of what made them great in Groce's first season on the bench, he may still have enough to make his fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years, including the 2010 and 2012 Mid-American Conference championship seasons he produced while guiding the Ohio Bobcats.
The top tier programs such as Kansas, Kentucky and Duke reloaded their rosters during the offseason by persuading the best high school talent to become a part of their rich traditions. Illinois has a bright future thanks to its incoming freshman class, but the fact that Champaign became a popular location for some of college basketball's most intriguing transfers could keep it relevant in the Big Ten race for next season.
Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will need to sit out a season before they can play in the newly renamed State Farm Center. Both of their debuts in blue and orange will be highly anticipated by the coaching staff thanks to their work in 2012-13.
Cosby registered over 30 minutes per game and netted 12.6 points and 3.0 assists per outing for Seton Hall and will have two years of eligibility remaining. Paul is the younger brother of the departing senior Brandon Paul and flew under the radar of many suitors who could have used his services during his prep career before landing at Western Michigan.
The 6-foot-8 forward won the 2012-13 MAC Freshman of the Year award as he produced 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for the conference's West Division champions.
Cosby and Paul will be able to practice with the team and improve the competitiveness of the Illini's scout team while they polish their individual skill sets next season. Groce will most likely have a trio of experienced newcomers at his disposal as Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey and Ahmad Starks get set to compete for minutes in his rotation.
Rice could have been on the short list for next season's Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award had he decided to stay at Drake. The hefty 6-4 guard was named to the MVC All-Freshman Team in 2011 and was a Second-Team All-MVC pick in 2012.
The Champaign native decided to return to his hometown after tallying just under 1,000 total points in two seasons as a Bulldog. Rice, who was also the 2010 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior, will have plenty to offer on the offensive end and he should have a grasp of the new offensive system thanks to his off-court participation this past season.
Ekey brings some MVC experience to the table after serving as a role player in Illinois State's run and gun-styled system for three years. The 6-7 forward scored in double figures in nine of his first 13 games as a junior, but only repeated that feat once more the rest of the way.
Ekey will able to play immediately because he graduated from ISU and plans to pursue a graduate degree unavailable at his former school. He will provide senior leadership to go along with his accurate free-throw and 3-point shooting.
Henry's departure from the program opened up a scholarship just in time for Starks, who announced he's departing the Pac-12 to attend a school near his home in Chicago to be closer to his ailing grandmother. The 5-9 guard rarely let his lack of size serve as an obstacle when it came to playing time in the first three years of his career.
Starks started 73 games as a Beaver, but he was less successful as a junior (10.4 ppg, 2.7 apg) compared to his sophomore campaign (12.1 ppg, 2.7 apg), which was made easier by the NBA-bound Jared Cunningham. Starks is likely to be granted instant eligibility as the NCAA usually permits a player to change schools without penalty when an immediate family member's health provokes the displacement.
Illinois doesn't have any All-American-caliber talent from the high school ranks on the way. It fell out of the race for the Land of Lincoln's top prospect Jabari Parker shortly after Bruce Weber was fired, but it replaced some of what was lost from its backcourt by signing in-state prospects Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Malcolm Hill to letters of intent. It also bolstered its front line by adding Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan.
Nunn and Tate both played for Simeon Career Academy, the prominent Windy City high school which former Illinois star Nick Anderson and current Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose attended.
Nunn and Tate were both overshadowed by Parker during their high school careers, so it should be interesting to see how the starting backcourt from the Class 4A championship squad plays without the combo highly touted Duke-bound swingman and Steve Taylor, who is headed North to join Buzz Williams at Marquette.
Nunn fits the mold of the departed Paul and Richardson, who were both shorter than the prototype for the scoring guard position. His combination of 3-point range, athleticism and defensive toughness should allow him to overcome his lack of size with ease. Tate did not receive as much attention from recruiters as his teammates, but his unselfish nature makes him an ideal floor general to run a Big Ten offense.
Hill has the size and basketball I.Q. to make an immediate impact on the wing. The 6-6 guard from Belleville East is young for his grade, though, and could use a year or two to develop, which he and Tate now have the ability to do thanks to the Illini's deep crop of newcomers.
Not to be forgotten, Colbert is going to contribute right away defensively and may evolve into a future NBA Draft first-round pick if he develops both offensively and physically.
The 6-10 Morgan hardly displayed explosiveness during his prep career, which resulted in him being labeled a three-star recruit. He has exhibited good skill and awareness to go along with his massive frame. Keep in mind, Aaron Gray was once a three-star recruit who quietly joined Pittsburgh the same offseason Chris Taft became a Panther. Taft jumped to the professional ranks after one season while Gray went on to become a Third Team All-American and the Big East's rebounding champion in 2005-06.
Illinois will more than likely be the most attractive program at the end of next season, which is only going to strengthen its pursuit of the 6-10, 265- pound prize of the 2014 recruiting class, Jahlil Okafor, who currently attends Whitney Young High School in Chicago.
Even if Okafor takes his talents to another state, the Illini are going to consistently compete for the conference title. Playing time will still be abundant for the newcomers as Starks and Ekey will only be around for one season before Cosby and Paul become eligible.
Ohio reached the Sweet 16 and came just short of upsetting a stacked North Carolina team in Groce's final year with the Bobcats. His best player from that squad, D.J. Cooper, is at best going to be a second-round selection in the upcoming rookie draft despite a record-breaking four-year run in Athens. The lack of any surefire NBA prospects on any of his recent NCAA Tournament teams is a testament to Groce's in-game coaching competence.
Groce's transfer-ladened recruiting class has set up Illinois for a return to greatness. The Illini suddenly have a very deep backcourt that contains both proven veterans and freshmen with limitless room for growth. The incoming big men should be plenty for Groce, who is an expert of coaching a perimeter-based attack.
The Big Ten was one of the toughest conferences in the land last season with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Iowa all collecting more than 20 wins apiece. With Iowa being the lone exception, all of those programs will have to forge a new identity as they try to replace vital components lost to graduation and the transfer wire.
Illinois may not have the most balanced or talented group among the league's members, but it is apparent Groce is one of the game's young coaching gems, so his team should not be underestimated.