Transfer point guard will be key as Illinois looks to improve offensively

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Last season Illinois struggled on the offensive end of the floor as they ranked 11th in the Big Ten in both field goal and three-point percentage, shooting 41.1% from the field and 31.7% from beyond the arc. The struggles to consistently make shots ultimately led the John Groce’s team winding up in the Postseason NIT, where they lost to Clemson in the second round by the final score of 50-49.

So while scoring in college basketball increased last season, due in part to rule changes that led to more attempted free throws, Illinois didn’t exactly reap the rewards as they averaged just 64.2 points per game. The Fighting Illinois scored 70 points or more in 11 of their 35 games last season, posting a record of 9-2 in those contests.

Can they threaten the 70-point mark more often in 2014-15? During the team’s media day Friday, Illinois’ offensive inefficiency was one of the topics discussed by their head coach.

“We were a fun team to coach. Our effort was off the charts,” Groce said. “Having said that, not to demean our guys, but in my six years as head coach that was the worst shooting team and passing team I’ve ever coached.”

Despite losing Tracy Abrams for the entire season after he suffered a torn ACL, the expectation in Champaign is that Illinois will be a better offensive team in 2014-15. Leading scorer Rayvonte Rice returns for his final season, and fellow guards Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill now have a year of Division I experience under their belts.

Illinois also adds two transfers to the backcourt rotation, with former Seton Hall guard Aaron Cosby and former Oregon State guard Ahmad Starks now eligible after sitting out all of last season. Starks’ addition took on added importance when Abrams suffered his injury, as he’ll now be first in line to handle the point guard responsibilities. So in addition to adding his 39.5% shooting from three (2012-13 at Oregon State), Starks will also have to prove capable of setting his teammates up for quality looks of their own.

Starks believes he is up for the job and is grateful Abrams will be on the sideline lending his advice.

“Yeah, I’m definitely ready for this,” Starks said. “The most important thing is filling Tracy’s voice on the floor. He’s been a big-time vocal leader and I’m more of a lead-by-example player. But I’m taking on the vocal responsibilities.”

Starks averaged just 2.3 assists per game as a junior in 2012-13, and if Illinois is to reach its goal of getting back to the NCAA tournament they’re going to need him to be an even better distributor in 2014-15.