When Rayvonte Rice was injured in the middle of last season, Illinois needed Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to step up. And they did.
This season, the Illini again need Hill and Nunn to take on expanded roles — in more ways than one.
The duo of juniors has already displayed its ability to step up from a production standpoint, and there’s no doubt that will need to carry over to the 2015-16 season. Hill finished 13th in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 14.4 points per game, while Nunn ranked 30th with 11.1 points per game. When Rice went down with an injury shortly after Big Ten play began, Hill averaged 17.7 points during Rice’s nine-game absence. Nunn averaged 16.1 points during that stretch.
But this season, head coach John Groce needs Hill and Nunn to do more.
That’s not just when it comes to producing points. Groce is more concerned with those players stepping up and stepping into leadership roles, taking over from where guys like Nnanna Egwu left off.
“I want those guys to serve,” Groce said during the team’s media day earlier this month. “I’ve really been on Hill and Nunn, in particular, with that. Those guys are very experienced. They’re basically two-year starters heading into their third year. And I want them to connect our team vocally and give great examples of what I want non-verbally or body-language-wise, as well, both on and off the court. I think both guys are up to the challenge, and I think that’s been a good thing.”
While losing Rice and his scoring is a big deal, losing Egwu and his leadership might be a bigger deal.
The story of the offseason for the Illini has been an incredible amount of injuries. Point guard Tracy Abrams tore his Achilles in the preseason and had his senior season wiped out before it started for the second straight year. Hyped freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands has been recovering from a stress fracture in his leg. Sophomore forward Leron Black had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. And most recently, an extended absence was announced for Nunn, as he needed surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. He could return toward the end of the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Last season had its own share of injuries between Abrams, Rice and others. Groce credited Egwu for getting the team through those challenges of losing teammates. He needs someone, specifically Hill and Nunn, to lead the team in a similar fashion this season.
“I think a lot of times players will follow coaches’ lead or follow your older players’ or captains’ lead. We did that last year,” Groce said. :As more time goes by, I really appreciate what (Egwu) did as a captain. You think about 80 games plus being lost by his teammates. … He did a phenomenal job. Why did that happen? Because they followed his lead, because of the character he has. Obviously he’s a good player, but it’s because of his character, it’s because he could lead. Leaders lead. He led. So I need those guys that are in that junior class to really step up in that area, and I think it’s an area where they can grow.”
For Hill and Nunn, it might seem a little strange, being the most experienced players on the team. It wasn’t long ago they were the youngsters and being led. Now it’s on them to lead their teammates. But it’s not like they didn’t see this coming.
“I don’t feel there’s any pressure at all. This is something that we were wanting to do. The time’s just been approaching,” Nunn said. “As leaders, we’re the most experienced guys, we’re just trying to bring energy, being more vocal and trying to lead guys in the right direction.”
“It’s not something new, though, it’s something we’ve been working on since freshman year,” Hill said. “It’s just now that it’s more important because we’re upperclassmen. I think we’ve been doing a good job with that.”
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Along with expanding their leadership duties, though, Hill and Nunn will need to get even better on the court and on the stat sheet if the Illini are going to do enough to win games in the Big Ten. Yes, they both had great stretches while Rice was sidelined for nine games. But consistency became an issue as the season entered its final stretch, when Illinois needed wins to stay on the NCAA tournament bubble, a bubble it ended up on the wrong side of for the second straight season.
After Rice returned, Hill and Nunn couldn’t consistently string together good games. Hill had shooting performances of 4-for-16, 1-for-10, 4-for-11, 1-for-7 and 3-for-12 in crucial late-season games. Nunn fared even worse, posting shooting games of 2-for-10, 2-for-11, 3-for-11, 2-for-12, 4-for-12 and 4-for-11, shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging just 8.6 points over the Illini’s final eight games of the season.
Hill and Nunn will need to deliver consistent leadership for the Illini to weather this rash of injuries. They’ll need to deliver consistent play if the two-year tourney drought is going to end.
“They’re good. They need to play that way all the time. That’s what I’m challenging them with. I’m holding them to a very high standard right now,” Groce said. “My standard for them is through the ceiling. Our job is to bust through that ceiling or self-imposed threshold that we all put on each other. I think what coaches do, the great ones, is they get guys to do things they thought maybe weren’t possible. And right now I’m expecting an awful lot out of those two guys from a leadership perspective, from their intensity level that they bring to practice, from what I expect from them off the court. All the way across the board.
“Those guys have played in a lot of games, they’re both very, very good basketball players. More importantly, I love both of them as human beings. They’ve got unlimited potential, and I’m going to keep asking them for more and more and more and more every day.
“I think that maybe they didn’t see themselves in that way (last season). They obviously both know they’re great players. When both guys are healthy and they’re really rolling and their minds are right, their hearts are in the right place, they can really play. But this year they understand and I think they feel maybe even more freedom and more empowerment from our staff to do a lot more of the intangible things. More so maybe even than last year.”