CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois survived a deep midseason slump to play basketball in March, even though the Illini weren't playing where they wanted to be.
The team that bounced back from an eight-game losing streak in the Big Ten to make the NIT grew stronger down the stretch, coach John Groce said Tuesday. And the team is expected to return almost intact, and with several key additions.
"I felt like it was an odd year," Groce said as he assessed his second season at Illinois. "Clearly it wasn't even close that we were playing our best basketball in February and March. ... Our guys continued to grind and work. I give them a lot of credit for that."
The team, which finished 20-15 and lost to Clemson in the NIT's second round, struggled to score and lacked a polished, consistent outside shooter. That should change when three transfers who sat out this season under NCAA rules join the roster: Guards Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) and forward Darius Paul (Western Michigan).
Starks owns Oregon State's record for career 3-pointers, and Cosby was a 38.8 percent 3-point shooter over two seasons at Seton Hall. Both have career scoring averages in double-figures.
"You're adding a couple of guys that have the capability, on a given night, they can make three, four, five 3s individually," Groce said.
Illinois averaged six 3-pointers a game this season. Paul, the younger brother of former Illinois star Brandon Paul, was a double-figures scorer in his one season at Western Michigan. And at 6-8 and 220 pounds, he adds size that the Illini were short on. Illinois often played with four guards because it had to.
The starting lineup Illinois opens with in November could be the same as the one it finished with last month at Clemson: Nnanna Egwu and four guards — Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill.
Nunn, Hill and the other freshmen the team came to rely on late last season — Maverick Morgan and guard Jaylon Tate — will have a year of experience to work with, and all four of them played in at least 33 games each. Abrams, Rice and Egwu will all be seniors. The 2013-14 team had only two — Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, neither of whom were starters by the end of the season.
Rice led last season's Illini with 15.9 points a game, eighth in the Big Ten, and he'll probably be expected to fill that role again.
This season's team also had just 11 players, one of them a walk-on. With the three transfers plus incoming freshmen Michael Finke and Leron Black, Groce will have the kind of depth he has lacked.
"I think it's going to allow us to be more aggressive," he said.
While he wouldn't say whether he'd like to add another player as he has with graduate student transfers the past two seasons, Groce wouldn't rule out the possibility of some kind of roster changes.
"We're recruiting every single day," he said. "We're aware of the landscape."