Conference play is right around the corner, so over the course of the next two weeks, College Basketball Talk will be detailing what some of the country’s best, most intriguing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams should resolve to do with the New Year right around the corner. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood. Thank Jessica Simpson.
ILLINOIS PROMISES TO: Get some more offensive help for Rayvonte Rice
- It will happen because: Illinois is still getting used to mixing in some new pieces and getting some more experience for younger players. The team’s second- and third-leading scorers, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, are both true sophomores who could see increased production with more minutes. Transfer guards Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks have shot the ball poorly this season, but rust and playing with a new team could play a bit of a factor as both sat out last season per NCAA rules. As opposing teams gear up to stop Rice — who has improved his perimeter jumper a lot this season — it should also give more open looks to his teammates.
- But it might not because: The point guard play for Illinois leaves a lot to be desired. Starks and sophomore Jaylon Tate have combined to shoot 36 percent from the field this season and given the Illini no noticeable offensive upgrade over former starter Tracy Abrams. Cosby has also been a colossal bust early this season as he was expected to space the floor with additional shooting and has failed to make an impact. Over his last eight games, Cosby is only shooting 17 percent from the field (10-for-57) and he’s only made two 2-point field goals since Nov. 24. If those three don’t step up, teams will overload on Rice and force others to beat them. So far, that isn’t working very well, and Illinois has struggled some on the offensive end against good competition.
ILLINOIS ALSO SWEARS THEY WON’T: Fall behind early in the Big Ten
- It will happen because: Illinois is struggling to find offensive consistency outside of Rice, Hill and Nunn and opening Big Ten play with four out of five games on the road is incredibly tough. It doesn’t help that the one home game in that stretch comes against a tougher-than-expected Maryland team either. Illinois has only played one true road game this season and lost at Miami in a game in which they struggled to match their normal offensive output.
- But it might not because: The teams Illinois are playing on the road in the Big Ten are either struggling or not very strong. Michigan is in a freefall, Ohio State has inflated its record on a cupcake schedule and Nebraska isn’t as tough as many believed. Northwestern is incredibly young and trying to find its footing. Illinois has at least faced some tough opponents in neutral settings like Baylor, Villanova and Oregon and the Miami loss was on the road. That means John Groce’s team should be accustomed to facing power-conference teams in places away from home and it should prepare them well for a run in what looks like a weak Big Ten. Wisconsin is still the heavy favorite in the conference, but every other spot in the league seems up for grabs.