Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 7/17/13
When you think of the Big Ten Conference there are a few words that instantly come to mind. Tough, Competitive, Traditional, maybe even Legendary.  In this conference, there is no time for mistakes, mishaps or accidents, just hard work to reach the ultimate goal. The NCAA Championship. In the 2012-2013 season, the conference was stacked to say the least, arguably the best conference in the NCAA. With 7 of 12 teams being ranked at one point or another and 4 finishing within the top 10 in the country, the word competitive would be an understatement.   The Illinois Basketball team, led by Senior Guard, Brandon Paul, were able to dethrone their #1 seeded rival, Indiana, which ultimately got them to the second round of the NCAA tourney. Not bad for first year coach, John Groce, right? The Illini would undoubtedly be one of the top seeded pre-season teams heading into the 2013-2014 season but their core unit is gone. 3 Senior leaders have graduated and a handful of role-players have transferred to smaller market schools. This leaves 5 players from last year’s team. (Joseph Bertrand RS SR, Mike LaTulip SO, Tracy Abrams JR, Rayvonte Rice RS JR, Nnanna Egwu JR)   Great players, but no defined leaders.  So where do the Fighting Illini stand? To a coach, it is heartbreaking to lose not only one, but TWO key scorers and leaders from your starting lineup in Paul and DJ Richardson. When the game was on the line you could almost instinctively count on one of these 2 players to convert a clutch steal or make a jump shot that only the Illini believed could actually go in. But as it turns out, Coach Groce, going into his 2nd year with the Illini, is not an amateur when it comes to recruiting. This will be his first season picking players that fit his system, without having pending recruits from a previous coach.   Groce landed Chicago native, shooting guard, Kendrick Nunn, who is a former Team USA player and was in the top 65 of the ESPN top 100 high school players in the country. Not bad? Well it gets better… The Illini were also able to sign Nunn’s 4X State Champion teammate, Jaylon Tate. Malcolm Hill of Belleville, Illinois and Austin Colbert of Chesapeake, VA round out the list of the 4 incoming freshman recruits expected to positively impact the Illini’s upcoming season. Groce also received two talented transfers to help complete his roster. Ahmad Starks, Chicago native and former starting point guard at Oregon State and Darius Paul, former forward at Western Michigan and also younger brother of Brandon.  With all of this talent who will step up now? Who will be that leader? What I find most interesting about the 2013-2014 roster is that 10 out of the 14 players are guards. Some new, some veteran. I think this is great. With so many fighting for this position it will create a competitive environment, making each member work harder than the next, because honestly, who really enjoys sitting on the bench? From this a leader may appear. Last year Abrams and Bertrand stepped up tremendously and gave the Illini an edge to accompany Paul and Richardson. Maybe these two, being the players with the most in game experience for the Illini, will take charge on and off the court. In particularly, Abrams, “The Floor general”. Last year he was safely the starting point guard but now with a seasoned player like Starks, it is evident that spot is up for grabs. My prediction is that there will be heavy rotations in Coach Groce’s system. With this many guards, one thing for certain the Illini will have is speed. The players are great but they can’t run forever in a conference like the Big Ten. The Illini’s 2013-2014 season is quickly approaching and it will be entertaining to say the least. If the Illini can stay focused and keep egos to the side I believe they can and will be the best conference in the Big Ten and can ultimately be contenders for a National Championship.           

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

PLAYERS: Joseph Bertrand
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