When the Illinois basketball team starts Big Ten play against Michigan on Wednesday at State Farm Center, the Illini will come in with their bruises from non-conference play — both literally and figuratively.
Head coach John Groce added more injured players to his list after an offseason filled with key injuries and departures while dealing with a group that struggled to find its identity early in the season. Now that the Illini have a good idea of the players who can play for the reminder of the season — barring injury or off-the-court issues — Groce knows a heavy task awaits in conference play as his team tries make a NCAA tournament push.
“It’s been challenging,” Groce said of the start of the season. “I’m hoping it prepared our players through the injuries more than it would any other way.”
The early season struggles started when the Illini played their home games in Springfield while construction workers finished the last touches of this year’s phase of renovations at State Farm Center. Illinois lost its opener against North Florida — a 2015 tournament team that as of Tuesday has a 10-5 record — and games against Chattanooga, Providence and then-No. 4 Iowa State — the first November losses during Groce’s time at Illinois.
While the losses to North Florida and Chattanooga concerned fans, the losses to Providence and Iowa State were met with less panic. The Illini were competitive in those games and showed glimpses of what the team could’ve been without key injuries. Illinois fell apart in the second half of loss against Notre Dame in its State Farm Center opener and barely came away with wins against weak opponents.
Much of the struggles stemmed from players trying to find a team rhythm while losing teammates to injury. Senior guard Tracy Abrams is missing his second straight season with a torn Achilles’ he suffered during the offseason. Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands and sophomore forward Leron Black battled injuries during the offseason but Coleman-Lands played at the start of the season. Junior guard Kendrick Nunn suffered a thumb injury that required surgery on his shooting hand, forcing him to miss the first few games of the season.
Although everyone came back from their injury, Black suffered set backs on his surgically repaired knee. Groce said that Black was dealing with swelling in his knee and he would be out indefinitely. Black averaged 3.9 points and rebounds per game in the games that he played. The injury cost Illinois another big man after Mike Thorne Jr. is expected to miss the rest of the season after he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus at the end of November.
Despite the injuries and the tough start to the season, the Illini are on a five-game winning streak heading into Wednesday’s game. Junior guards Malcolm Hill and Nunn have taken leadership of the team as many expected heading into the season. Hill leads barely leads the team in scoring with 18.7 points per game and carried the load at the beginning of the season. Nunn has shown little effects from his injury, averaging 18.5 points per game.
The two has played well off of each other in recent victories and the duo will need to produce if the team wants to qualify for the tournament. Other players like Michael Finke have stepped up and will need to contribute in the future.
Conference play is always filled with surprises and tough matches, but in a down year in the Big Ten, Groce knows his team will be ready to make its push for a tournament bid.
“This time is the big time,” Groce said. “Our guys are excited and view this as a second season, a fresh start.”
Michal can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @mdwojak94.