Feb 26, 2014; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward/center Nnanna Egwu (32) andguard Kendrick Nunn (25) and forward Jon Ekey (33) and guard Tracy Abrams (13) and guard Rayvonte Rice (24) huddle during the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball: Five Lessons Learned From This Season

1. Change can be good: On February 9th, Coach Groce made the call to make a change and start freshman Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill for the first time in their young Illini careers. That change proved to be the right call as the Illini beat Penn State in order to snap a terrible eight game losing streak in the Big Ten. Both Nunn and Hill made great improvements this season (especially after being inserted into the starting lineup). Sometimes change can be a good thing. Illinois might not have lost eight straight if this change was made earlier in the season.

2. Another poor start to conference play killed this team: For the second straight season, the Illinois Fighting Illini had a poor start to Big Ten conference play before picking things up towards the end of the season. Last season, Illinois started Big Ten play 3-7 before going 5-3 to finish the regular season at 8-10 in the conference. This season, Illinois started 2-8 through the first ten conference games and again picked things up for an 7-11 conference record. Yes, Illinois plays in arguably the toughest conference in basketball, but this kind of performance needs to change. Maybe, the team needs to schedule tougher non-conference opponents to get ready for conference play. Seven of Illinois’ thirteen non-conference opponents from this season finished the season with a losing record (three had over 20 loses).

3. Rayvonte Rice needs to get his groove back: There was an obvious change to Rayvonte Rice and his confidence over the course of the season. At the beginning of the year, Rice was taking (and hitting) game-winners like the one against UNLV. Towards the end of the year, Rice was not taking these kinds of shots. It looked like Rice got this type of “groove” back in the first NIT game against Boston when he hit the late layup to put his team up three. Rayvonte needs to be the leader of the Illini if they want to have success next season. Nothing against Tracy Abrams, but Rice should have been the player taking the last second shots against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament and Clemson in the NIT.

4. Tracy Abrams is NOT Brandon Paul: Looking around the internet, there seems to be a ton of hate directed towards Tracy Abrams from the standpoint of Illini fans. Let’s make this clear. Tracy Abrams is not a bad player. The problem is that some Illini fans expected him to be what Brandon Paul was last season. Abrams is not a true scorer. He’s not going to have the highest shooting percentage (especially from three). However, he is great at dishing the basketball. Paul was the scorer for the Illini last season, and that isn’t a role fit for Tracy Abrams.

5. Next season will be much better: Think of this season as the “sophomore slump” for Coach Groce. Groce brought in a ton of talent to Champaign last offseason, but most of that talent had to sit out per NCAA rules (transfers). Next season will be better. This Illini squad will be much more familiar with one another (only losing two seniors). Expect the players to grow and improve this offseason while adding some needed talent from Starks, Cosby, and “little” Paul (Brandon’s brother).

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Tags: Basketball Illinois Fighting Illini Kendrick Nunn Malcolm Hill Rayvonte Rice Tracy Abrams

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