Illinois Basketball: Who will emerge as the leader for the Illini?

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Leron Black /

Entering this season, there are many question marks for the Illinois basketball team.

One of the biggest concerns for Illinois head coach Brad Underwood early on is who will become the leader for the Illini this season?

Last year, although the Illini failed to win crucial games down the stretch and reach the NCAA tournament, I wouldn’t say that they were short on leadership.  This obviously started with star Malcolm Hill but other guys, like sixth-year point guard Tracy Abrams, could definitely be considered a leader for the Illini as well.

Hill finished his Fighting Illini career third all-time in scoring – 1,846 career points – and was one of only two players to finish his career with 1,800 points and 600 rebounds.  Hill left as a very historic player in Illinois history, but his legacy may be defined by him failing to play in the NCAA tournament during his run in Champaign.

Still, Hill was the type of leader you want on your squad.  He had that sort of toughness that set him apart from other guys.  He wanted the ball in big situations, and he carried his team when they struggled to find the scoring column in certain games.

How can the Illini replace such a high-character leader who set the standard so high? For me, it has to start with redshirt junior forward, Leron Black.

Obviously, there will be many other key players that could step up as leaders for this year’s team as well, such as Michael Finke, Te’Jon Lucas, Mark Alstork and Kipper Nichols.  But Black, to me, really has to step up and be the primary leader for the Illini this season.

To start, Black has been here.  This is his fourth year with the team – he redshirted the 2015-16 season – so he has been through a lot with the Fighting Illini.  Now, clearly, he is not going to be that guy who turns into as big of a scoring threat as Malcolm Hill was when he donned the Orange and Blue.  But, I think he has that “IT” factor that could make him a great leader.

While he was on the bench for his redshirt campaign a couple years ago, he was the guy who was firing up the team.  He plays with a lot of emotion and really has the ability to spark the Illini when he wants to.  The 6-foot-7 Black averaged 8.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game – good for 14th in the Big Ten – a season ago, and he had some impressive glimpses that suggest he will have a big year for the Illini this season.

Next: Season expectations heading into the opener

So, I think the leader that the Illini are searching for will eventually stem from Black, as he has the toughness and grit to lead the team this season.  This will pull a huge weight off Coach Underwood’s shoulders, as a leader is the key for a team to have late-season success, especially in a prominent conference such as the Big Ten.