John Groce has arguably been the most challenged coach in the Big Ten, maybe the entire nation, when it comes to injured players during his time as the Illinois men’s basketball head coach.
The head coach had an interesting word when describing the current group of players who can play for him when Illinois hosts Nebraska on Saturday afternoon: rendition. He’s had different groups of players available and he’s been forced to juggle lineups.
Groce will continue with the trend with the current injuries his group has. He confirmed during his press conference Friday that Tracy Abrams won’t return this season and that senior-transfer Mike Thorne Jr. and sophomore Leron Black are still out indefinitely. Groce couldn’t give a timetable because of the constant change in statues between the two players, but said Friday that Thorne is closer to coming back.
“We’re just going to keep on pushing with what we need to do health wise,” Groce said. “But there’s little hope for them to get game time (Saturday).”
The junior duo of guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have recently produced the way Groce and many fans expected them to before the start of the season. Hill scored 30 points in Illinois’ win over Purdue on Sunday while Nunn added 22. The two have flip-flopped in leading the Illini in scoring, even in key losses.
Nunn continued a strong trend after missing the first few games of the season due to injury to his shooting hand. The junior missed Illinois’ blowout loss to to Michigan State to attend the birth of his son but has been on fire with his offensive play. He now leads the team in scoring, averaging 18.8 points per game.
While Nunn has gained the momentum to lead the team in scoring, Hill rebounded from a rut he faced in recent games. He’s second on the team in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game and seems to be bouncing back. Groce used Hill a lot at the beginning of the season when his teammates faced injury and Hill has seemed disinterested during games.
Groce knows that Hill’s play is a key to the team’s success and that the junior can be pushed to a better game.
“For us to play at a high level, Hill has to be engaged,” Groce said. “He’s been huge for us but I think he has more.”
Illinois’ three freshman have also produced in a big way. Groce commented that this group had been “thrown into the fire” more than any other group that he’s had at Illinois and he thinks they’ve responded well. Jalen Coleman-Lands leads the trio of true freshmen with 9.1 points per game, most of which come from behind the arc. Aaron Jordan has also provided a boost in scoring while D.J. Williams has been consistent defensively as the group has learned Groce’s system quickly.
Although they still have a higher level to reach according to Groce, the group has improved and paved a good path for them for the future.
“They’re getting better,” Groce said. “I think all three of them had their best game last Sunday. I like the progress that they’ve made.”
The Illini will try to build off their win over Purdue against a young Cornhuskers team. Nebraska is a young like Illinois and is 10-8, 2-3 in the Big Ten with losses to Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana and wins against Rutgers and Minnesota. Junior Andrew White leads the team with 17.3 points per game and in rebounds with 5.9 per game.
Illinois will try to rebound after a 1-3 start to conference play against the conference’s best teams. In order to right the ship create a chance to qualify for the NCAA tournament, Groce’s squad will need to focus on Nebraska and find the right rendition of players.
“They’re playing well right now, they won two in a row,” Groce said. “They got some young guys out there that reminds me of us, Ohio State, Rutgers. They’re playing some young guys who’ve really gotten better.”