Illini look to score more, return to NCAA tourney
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) A year ago, Illinois was preparing for a season of unknowns.
Without mainstays Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, the Illini's mix of veterans, transfers and a bunch of freshman started 7-0 but later slid into an eight-game losing streak.
''Last year we brought in nine newcomers,'' said coach John Groce, now in his third year. ''I hope we don't have to do that again.''
This season, he said, will be nothing like that: ''Eleven of the 15 players are returners. I expect a lot out of them.''
Illinois settled for a spot in the National Invitation Tournament last season, finishing 20-15. A return to the NCAA Tournament, where the Illini ended the 2012-13 season a few points shy of the Sweet Sixteen, is the talk of preseason.
''Yeah, that's a standard, that's the goal,'' senior guard Rayvonte Rice said.
But they'll have to do it without starting point guard Tracy Abrams, who is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Illinois opens Nov. 14 against Georgia Southern. Some things to watch once the season starts:
ABRAMS' ABSENCE: The senior's injury will be a loss for Illinois. Abrams, who is redshirting, was Illinois' No. 2 scorer last season with 10.7 points a game and started every game.
But thanks to what initially appeared to be bad luck, Illinois has a handy replacement.
Groce asked the NCAA for a waiver to allow Oregon State transfer Ahamad Starks to play immediately last season rather than sit out. The NCAA declined, keeping Starks inactive and preserving his senior season.
Starks is known as a scorer, but senior center Nnanna Egwu says Starks doing other things a good point guard does, too.
''He really takes care of everyone, makes sure everyone knows where they're going on the court,'' Egwu said.
SCORING DROUGHT: If it weren't for Northwestern, Illinois would have been the worst offensive team in the Big Ten last season. At 64.2 points a game, the Illini struggled to find the bottom of the basket.
''That's an understatement,'' Groce said. ''Our effort was off the charts, but having said that, in my first six years, it was the worst shooting team and passing team that I've coached.''
Groce has reason to think that will change this season because of the additions of Starks, who owns Oregon State's career record for 3-point shots made with 185 over 97 games, and fellow transfer Aaron Cosby.
Cosby sat out last season, too, after coming from Seton Hall. He averaged 10.1 points a game there over two seasons and was a 39 percent 3-point shooter.
RICE'S ROLE: The development of young guards, such as sophomore Kendrick Nunn, as well as the presence of Starks and Cosby likely means the Illini won't have to look to senior Rayvonte Rice quite as much as they did last season.
Rice was the team's leading scorer - 15.9 points a game - and averaged 32.7 minutes. If there was a big shot to be taken, odds were the ball was in the hands of Rice or Abrams.
Rice, who played for Drake before returning to his hometown of Champaign, acknowledges the challenge ahead.
''Knowing when to score and when not to (try to) score, and knowing when to dish it off to my teammates and not having to force that shot,'' he said.
DEFENSE FIRST: While Illinois had trouble scoring last season, it had no such difficulty at the other end of the court.
The Illini were second in the Big Ten and 22nd in the country in scoring defense at 62.2 points a game, a product of Illinois' hard-nosed guards and center Nnanna Egwu's sometimes underrated play in the paint.
His players' commitment to defense won't change, Groce said.
''They know that at Illinois, you're evaluated on defending and rebounding,'' he said.
10 TOES: Like a lot of coaches, Groce is fond of slogans and themed events to bring his team together. The Illini trained with Navy Seals last year. This time, it was a trip to Groce's backyard.
''I took them out back to the swimming pool and made them take their shoes off and put all 10 toes in the water,'' he said. ''I want all 10 toes in the water.''
Illinois players are wearing bracelets this season with the number 10 on them, a reminder of Groce's demand that they be ''all in.''