John Groce might not be superstitious. But he is a little stitious.
"I tried to make sure, when I got up out of bed this morning, that I didn't trip over anything or, you know, tried to remain healthy between the walk from the hotel room down the elevator here to the press conference."
The Illinois basketball coach has a reason to be extra careful these days, as his players are dropping like flies. One injury after another has befallen the Illini this offseason, and the injury list resembles the roster better than the list of unhurt players.
The latest blow came just Thursday morning, when the team announced during Big Ten basketball media day that junior guard Kendrick Nunn injured his thumb and didn't make the trip to Chicago.
With Nunn getting examined Thursday, there wasn't much news for Groce to report.
"I don't know a whole lot at this point other than the fact that the right thing to do was to not bring him today because he did get injured in practice two days ago with his left hand/thumb. And it swelled up a little bit. We had a chance to get him in to see our hand specialist this morning where they'll do further evaluation. I'll know more, I'm hoping, sometime today.
"I'm not a doctor, obviously. I don't have an X-ray at this point, an MRI. He hasn't met with the hand specialist. We don't have anything at this point. Those appointments are this morning. And then once those appointments take place, we'll know a lot more."
Just when you thought it couldn't get worse on the injury front for Illinois, it did. Nunn's injury follows injuries to Tracy Abrams (torn Achilles), Jalen Coleman-Lands (stress fracture in leg) and Leron Black (torn meniscus). Three of those four were slated to be starters. The other is the team's best incoming freshman.
"People ask, 'Is it unprecedented?' You know, I'm sure there's other injuries. That's part of sports," Groce said. "But (for several injured players) to miss 80 games last year and then to go through what we went through to this point this year early is a little bit unprecedented."
Of course, like most coaches and athletes, the Illini are judiciously repeating the phrase "next man up," and Groce talked about how the team won't use this rash of injuries as an excuse. It's something the team had to talk about just last week at its media day. A week later, junior guard Malcolm Hill — the only player in attendance due to Nunn's injury — faced more questions about the same topic.
“It’s been tough," Hill said. "But we don’t hang our heads about it. We always stay positive. Coach Groce always says, ‘Next man up.’ We pray for a speedy recovery for (Nunn), but right now we worry about the pieces we’ve got right now. We’re a no-excuse organization.”
Hill pointed out an important silver lining: timing. While the Illini might hobble into the season, they'll likely be as close to full strength as they can get not too long after the campaign tips off. While Abrams is done for the season and the severity and extent of Nunn's injury remain unknown, Coleman-Lands could be back by the season-opener and Black could return not long after that.
“We try not to think about, ‘Who’s the next one to get hurt?’" Hill said. "My thing is, I’m glad it’s happening now. For example, with Leron having surgery, I’m glad he’s having that now instead of during the season. I feel like we’re just getting little knick-knack injuries. I think the one injury that we’re glad we caught early was Jalen’s just because he was playing on that for a long time, and we’re glad to get that fixed. He’s going to be back before the season, hopefully. That’s what it’s looking like, he’s looking real good right now.”
"Next man up" might be overused these days. But the truth is that it's a mentality teams need to have. Injuries are rarely things that can be controlled, and dwelling on them for too long takes away from a team's focus. Illinois showed that it has the ability to rally after losing a teammate when leading scorer Rayvonte Rice was knocked out of action in the middle of last season. Nunn and Hill stepped up in Rice's absence, which due to recovery and a suspension lasted nine game.
The Illini will have to find players who can do that again this season.
“I think the pivotal point we had and we really backed up coach Groce’s statement, ‘next man up,’ is when Ray went down and we had to play Maryland, a top-10 team. We had to overcome that, Ray gets hurt the day before the game," Hill said. "A lot of people probably thought we were down and out, but with the ‘next man up’ mentality, we found a way and we got it done.”
"We'll deal with it. We have a 'next man up' philosophy, Our guys know that," Groce said. "We're not going to make excuses. We don't take shortcuts. We're not going to complain. We're going to figure it out. That's what we do. In the meantime, we'll try to get those guys as healthy as possible and get them back as quickly as possible."