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College basketball: Young, thin roster creates questions at Illinois

CHAMPAIGN – No one expected what John Groce pulled off in his first season at Illinois.

A 23-13 record from a team fresh off a monumental collapse the season before. An appearance in the NCAA tournament.

No one, including Groce, knows just what to expect this season.

The team that will open the season Nov. 8 against Alabama State won’t look anything like Groce’s first Illini team. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin are gone. The team is thin and young – the roster goes only 11 deep, and five of them are freshmen.

Paul was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points a game, and the one player capable of carrying the team on any given night. There is no obvious replacement.

Four things to watch about this Illini season:

Leaning on Egwu: Seven of the 11 players on the Illinois roster are guards. Only one, 6-foot-10 freshman Maverick Morgan, is considered a pure center. Only three – Morgan, 6-11 Nnanna Egwu and 6-9 freshman forward Austin Colbert – are 6-9 or taller.

Morgan and Colbert are both raw, so much of this Illini team’s size and ability to play big under the basket will come from Egwu.

He started 35 of Illinois’ 36 games last season, averaging 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds a game.

College experience: Forward Jon Ekey, a graduate-student transfer from Illinois State, came to Champaign along with Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice to bring experience.

Rice said Groce and his coaching staff started honing his physique and his game through diet, running and shooting and ball-handling drills.

“Coach Groce made that a point as soon as I got here: I had no time to waste,” Rice said, adding that he’s dropped about 35 pounds to get to his current 231 and decreased his body fat from just over 12 percent to about 5 percent.

Hometown kid: Rice grew up in Champaign, but was never seriously recruited by Illinois until he’d spent a couple of seasons at Drake. The season he sat out under NCAA transfer rules was hard but did Rice good, Groce said.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy sitting out on a transfer make the number of strides that Ray did,” said Groce, who says Rice, at 6-4, can play four positions.

December to remember? The Illini open with five games they should be able to handle. What comes next is a different story.

If you throw in the Nov. 26 game at UNLV, the Illini have a run of nine games ending Dec. 31 that include four NCAA tournament teams from last season, plus games against an SEC school and ACC school (Auburn and Georgia Tech).

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