For the first time this season, the Illini are over .500, which as you might imagine is not something to be overly excited about.
At 6-5, Illinois is off to one of the worse starts in recent memory, stumbling through its non-conference schedule toward an always grueling Big Ten gauntlet.
Even in the win that took their record into positive territory, the Illini were anything but a force. Up against a UIC team that has just one win this season, the Illini allowed the Flames to grab an early lead, erase a double-digit halftime deficit, go ahead in the second half and hang around till the game’s final buzzer. Illinois won the game by an 83-79 score, but UIC made them gut it out, going on a 14-0 run in the middle of the second half, shooting 55.6 percent from the field in the second half and hitting nine 3-pointers on the game.
The result was a positive Saturday, as was the way the Illini prevented a 14-0 run that erased their lead from becoming something even more. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot this team needs to improve on if it’s going to compete with Big Ten opponents and prevent the program’s NCAA tournament drought from reaching three years.
“At the end of the day, I’m pleased with the way they really manned up there late once we got down one. At the same time, we’ll look at the things we need to get better at,” head coach John Groce said. “They kind of laughed at me in the locker room, but my friend John Gordon said, ‘Winning can sometimes be a deodorant. It can hide maybe what you stunk at. It can hide that.’ So we don’t want to use that, we want to find the things we need to get better at.
“These guys will tell you, we’re always real with them, we’ll address them and we’ll continue to get better. I do think we’re getting better, and I really like our group. So I’m excited to see where we can go here this next week and how much we can improve.”
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There’s no doubting the last few months have been an excruciating exercise for Groce and his team. Injuries have been the dominating storyline, with plenty of them occurring in the preseason. Tracy Abrams’ torn Achilles wiped out his senior season for the second straight year. Jalen Coleman-Lands battled through a stress fracture in his leg. Leron Black had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Kendrick Nunn suffered a torn ligament in his thumb.
And it didn’t stop once the season started, either. Jaylon Tate dislocated his finger in an early game. Mike Thorne could miss the entire season after having surgery to remove his meniscus. Black has had soreness and sat out a few games as he tries to move back toward full strength.
“It’s been a little bit crazy. One thing I’ll tell you is they’re very odd ones. They have absolutely nothing to do with training,” Groce said. “I think part of it’s been some bad luck and some real quirky injuries. They’re not the typical basketball injuries, some of these things we’re having. But for whatever reason, we’ve been dealt these things, got to handle them the right way, continue to get guys healthy, continue to try to play the game the right way.”
Injuries have been crippling, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s forced the Illini to try to figure things out on the fly. Saturday marked the first time this season Illinois has had the same starting five in back-to-back games. Without their starting big men in Thorne and Black, the Illini are struggling with a huge question mark in their frontcourt, a question they haven’t had time to answer and are working on during games.
A lot of young guys have been thrown into the fire, Coleman-Lands and fellow freshman Michael Finke playing big minutes and playing time increasing for another freshman in Aaron Jordan.
“It’s led to more opportunities for a guy like Jalen Coleman-Lands or Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams or Michael Finke as freshmen. Those are four freshmen that I think are going to be really good, and they’re doing some good things now, we just need them to be a little bit more consistent,” Groce said. “Well what’s going to happen is they’re going to get that consistency because they’re improvement’s going to be accelerated because they’re counted on a little bit more right now. So that’s a good thing for not only this year but for our program.”
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The cause has been uncertainty with an unbelievable amount of injuries. But the effect has been a real struggle to start the season. Illinois has narrowly escaped North Dakota State, Chicago State and Yale. It can count North Florida and Chattanooga among its losses, in addition to more understandable defeats against the more marquee opponents on the non-conference slate: Iowa State, Notre Dame and Providence.
But is this a storm to weather, or this is more a preview of how the rest of the season will play out? Certainly this Illini team could figure things out and start playing much better basketball. Past Illinois teams have done just that. But there’s the other side of that coin, too, where the Illini can’t figure it our, are too damaged by these injuries and get routinely pounded by teams like Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue, teams that will take far more advantage of mistakes than UIC, Chicago State, North Dakota State and Yale.
Groce talked about making lemonade out of the high number of lemons his team’s been handed so far this season, and he likes the direction things are heading. But if that lemonade doesn’t translate into some more wins and the Illini miss the Big Dance for the third straight season, then what?
“Considering everything that we’ve been through, I’m just really proud of our guys that we’ve stayed the course. They’ve stayed positive, and they found a way (Saturday),” Groce said. “Winners, sometimes, you get behind the eight ball, you’ve got to assemble and find a way to get it done. The guys did that today, I thought it was good.
“I do think our young guys are getting better. I thought we played one of our better basketball games all year this past Wednesday night (against Yale). I think we’re getting better. Some guys are getting better through the baptism-by-fire deal. I’m thrilled with the way they’ve been able to sustain their poise, their energy, being positive. We’ve got a really good locker room when it comes to character, and that’s going to give us a chance to continue to improve.”