Illinois hopes return of old faces bring improved results
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) The Illinois team that takes the court in early November will look a lot different than the one that limped to a 15-19 record last season.
Illini fans accustomed to no real point guard and few options at center will see a change at both positions, thanks in part to the return of sixth-year guard Tracy Abrams and center Mike Thorne Jr.
In fact, assuming nothing changes by the Nov. 11 opener against Southeast Missouri, Illinois will have every player on its roster healthy for the first time in two years.
None is more welcome than Abrams.
The 6-2 point guard from Chicago turned 24 in February, is closing in on his third degree and believes he can be both the leader his team needs and a contributor at a position where last season Illinois sometimes lacked even one legitimate option.
Abrams says now he never doubted he would make it back, and does not want to talk about what happened last season, including the arrests of teammates Leron Black, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn. Charges against Tate were dropped while Black pleaded guilty to misdemeanor aggravated assault and Nunn to misdemeanor domestic battery. Nunn was kicked off the team while Black and Tate are back.
''That's important because we can't go back into time and try to change those things,'' he said. ''It's a different team. It's a different year.''
Beyond what Abrams can do at point guard, Illini coach John Groce sees him as a steadying presence.
''Where he's come from ... he's like having an old man out there,'' Groce said.
Some of the key things to look for as Illinois starts its season:
AT THE POINT
In his junior season, Abrams started all 35 games and scored 10.7 points a game and averaged 3.2 assists . Illinois will also have Tate, a senior who started 15 times last season but isn't a scorer, and freshman Te'Jon Lucas, who scored 20.5 points a game and averaged 7.8 assists as a high school senior in Milwaukee.
Thorne's return from a knee injury that cost him most of last season gives Illinois two legitimate centers, along with improving senior Maverick Morgan . Groce is counting on both for a team that last season lived on outside shooting and was near the back of the Big Ten in rebounding. Illinois will also hope the 6-7, 220-pound Black can contribute here, too.
''We better see a difference rebounding,'' Groce said. ''We should be a little more potent inside scoring.''
Having those big men will also let Malcolm Hill spend more time on the wing his senior season. The 6-6 Hill led Illinois last season with 18.1 points a game, but he played everything from point guard to post. Hill insists that wasn't a problem.
''I was doing a lot, but not too much for me to handle,'' he said.
While his players mostly stick to a ''don't look too far ahead'' line when asked about the possibility of a return to the NCAA Tournament after three straight seasons away, Groce isn't shy about calling a trip back a goal.
''We want it to be an expectation, that that's what we do every year,'' he said.
Groce may need his team to get back to the tournament.
After last season, he found himself sitting at a news conference listening to his new boss, athletic director Josh Whitman, tell reporters that the coach would keep his job in spite of the series of arrests. But Whitman has made a lot of the slogan ''We will win'' since he took over at his alma mater in February, and Groce, in his fifth season, has just the one trip to the NCAA Tournament so far.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP