Illinois was riding high on a 13-1 record and a top 10 ranking entering the new year, but so far, Big Ten play hasn't been kind to the Illini in 2013. Here are a few belated New Years Resolutions the Illini can make to help get back on track.
If I'm the seniors, in 2013 I would resolve to... take charge:
Between Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson alone, the two have combined for well over 100 starts in their career. Needless to say, they've played a lot of basketball. I don't think there's much question as to who the leaders on the team should be, but at the end of last season, it was Tracy Abrams taking home the MVP designation.
Brandon Paul has shown what he can do when he's really feeling it, but since Big Ten play started, he's been inconsistent in his scoring and has seemed easily frustrated by opposing defenses. DJ Richardson has been getting it done all year on the defensive end, often guarding the opponent's best player. But like Paul, he needs to be willing to take charge of the team in high-pressure situations.
And Tyler Griffey, who hit big shot after big shot earlier in non-conference play, has been in a slump lately. He seemed to have a renewed confidence this year and was playing better, but lately, he has seen less time on the floor and hasn't been hitting his outside shots as consistently. If he can regain his confidence, he could be just the boost the Illini need to regain their prolific perimeter shooting.
If I'm Nnanna Egwu, in 2013 I would resolve to... find a mean streak:
I think you can make the argument that Nnanna Egwu was the hardest working player during the offseason for Illinois. Over 20,000 shots in the gym and a visibly stronger frame are great, but Egwu still seems tentative in many of the same ways he did last year. He plays more under control, but he could stand to be more aggressive.
His finesse and touch game have clearly developed, but being such an important player on the team, he needs to be a bigger presence in the paint. Egwu should make it a personal mission to own that space on the floor. If he does that, it could not only increase his production, but also open things up on the outside for his teammates.
If I'm Tracy Abrams, in 2013 I would resolve to... embrace the point guard role more:
John Groce sung the praises of Tracy Abrams for his 8 assists to one turnover in the Auburn game and how vital that was to the team's success. And that should come as no surprise given how important the point guard position is in Coach Groce's system. Abrams has shown what he can do driving to the basket and setting up teammates through dribble penetration, but Abrams and the Illini have been at their best when he can distribute the basketball effectively and minimize the turnovers.
Groce calls Abrams a bulldog for his toughness, and that mental toughness is coming along. But with likely 2 years remaining at Illinois, Abrams projects to be the leader for Illinois in the future. In Groce's system, the point guard role and leadership go hand in hand, and with weapons like Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn on the way, Abrams will have teammates who specialize in scoring, allowing him to fill the role of a true floor general who is capable of scoring rather than a scorer who is capable of playing the point guard position.
If I'm Joe Bertrand, in 2013 I would resolve to... continue to become a more complete player:
Joe Bertrand has made his fair share of "WOW" plays in his Illinois career, including an acrobatic leaping layup over Georgia Tech that brought Assembly Hall to its feet. Many people say, and rightfully so, that Bertrand is the best athlete on the team. His play this year has evidenced more ability to drive and hit a pull-up floater in the lane and be active around the hoop, but next year he won't be the sixth man any longer, and the many of the responsibilities that now rest on players like Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson will be on Bertrand next year.
To make the most of his ability, he will need to more fully develop as a player, becoming more proficient in ball handling, outside shooting, and consistency. He'll still make the wow plays from time to time, but if Bertrand can round out his arsenal, he has the potential to be a real impact player for Groce in the same way Walter Offutt was for Ohio.
If I'm John Groce, in 2013 I would resolve to... stay positive:
Early 2013 is all too familiar for Illinois fans so far. A successful non-conference campaign with a narrow loss to Missouri, a big win over Ohio State, a sloppy loss against Purdue (last year Penn State), and the early signs of a slump. But if I'm John Groce, I don't let history repeat itself. Negativity quickly surrounded the program, and now with a team made up almost entirely of the same players as last year, Groce and his team are really looking to get the monkey off of their back, all the while playing in what is probably the toughest conference in the country.
The Big Ten is unforgiving, no doubt about that. Long term, I stay positive because it's just my first year and it isn't easy inheriting a new team with new players. I have a five-man class with players at each position who are likely to contribute early coming in, and I know that right now, this is the most excited the fanbase has been about Illinois Basketball in a while. If I'm Groce, I do my best to make sure that the early part of 2013 is just a speed bump and not a road block.