2015 was a miserable year when it came to injury news for the Fighting Illini.
Tracy Abrams had his senior season washed away for a second straight year with a summertime injury. Jalen Coleman-Lands fractured his leg during the preseason. And Leron Black and Mike Thorne both missed the majority of the season with knee injuries.
The rash of injuries wasn't the only thing that kept the Illini out of the NCAA tournament field for the third straight season, but it was most definitely a contributing factor.
The arrival of summer, though, brings the transition to the 2016-17 season, what is almost surely a make-or-break one for John Groce, who has just one invite to the Big Dance in his four years in Champaign. And for the first time in what seemed like forever, Groce was able to deliver a bunch of positive news on the injury front as Illinois' summer practices roll on.
Groce started with Abrams, who suffered a torn ACL and a torn Achilles the past two summers, heartbreakingly wiping out senior seasons before they began and leaving the Illini without a reliable point guard. The upcoming season will be much different with the veteran floor general actually on the floor.
"Tracy’s doing really well. Everything from a health perspective, physically, is ahead of schedule," Groce told reporters Thursday. "He feels great, he’s strong. His body fat’s seven percent, it’s the lowest it’s ever been. His conditioning — I don’t know if it’s November game shape yet, but it’s getting closer. He’s worked really hard at it. He feels great. We’re just being with him a little bit conservative right now. He’s been able to do one-man group workouts. He was in a group workout Monday and looked great. Today he worked out in here and looked really explosive in terms of lift off the floor. And I think he’s starting to get even more and more confidence in his body. We’ll play it by ear, but we’re probably two to four weeks away before we cut him loose."
Black and Thorne are also progressing nicely, it sounds like, after the duo — which was supposed to be the team's starting front court last season — combined to appear in only 15 games. Thorne recently received great news when the NCAA approved his hardship waiver and granted him a sixth year of eligibility. Black, meanwhile, was one of three Illinois players to deal with legal issues this spring and will be suspended for the first handful of games of the upcoming campaign.
"Thorne came back to campus over the weekend after getting the news of his waiver, which we’re all excited about. So he’s back," Groce said. "Knee looks good, really good, structurally great. The strength between the two knees is very similar, which is what you want so you don’t overcompensate. We do want to get him in a little better cardio condition, drop just a few pounds to take some of that stress off the lower body. He’s already huge, and we want to make sure with a lower body extremity injury that he’s coming off of that we don’t put any excess weight on that right now. He’s probably a week to two weeks away from full go. We’re going to assess and monitor him, try to get the weight at a certain number, make sure we get his lower body where it needs to be, as well. We’re doing different rehab things with both him and Tracy that will be a part of what they do the entire year."
“Leron is doing well," Groce added. "He’s full go right now, which is great. He got cleared full go over the weekend, that’s the first time since the injury that he’s been full go. Strength is great. He experiences a little bit of soreness every once in a while after some workouts, nothing out of the norm, nothing that’s not expected after going through what he went through, nothing that’s going to slow him down. He feels good, his body looks great. … He’s trimmed down. He’s really starting to pay more attention to his diet, and I think that’s really impacted him.”
Then there's Te'Jon Lucas, the incoming freshman point guard from Milwaukee. Despite not even being with the Illini yet, he was bit by the same injury bug, breaking bones in his foot during a fall in a high school game that was coincidentally played in Champaign with Groce looking on.
"Te’Jon moved in this past weekend. He had the surgery with the foot where they put screws in there. He’s been out of the boot for roughly a month or so, so we’ve slowed him down a little bit this first week or two," Groce said. "He is cleared to do skill instruction, he’s getting shots up and free throws and ball handling. But we won’t clear him for contact until we make sure the right leg’s as strong as the left leg. We want them both equal. It’s not quite there right now, and before we cut him loose with contact, we want to make sure we’ve got that equalized. … I expect that sometime in the next month or so that he could be full go, as well."
Even though most of the names will be familiar, it will be a very different-looking Illini team in 2016-17 with the team at full strength. The holes at point guard and in the front court last season were caused with three would-be starters missing practically the entire season. With those three players back in the fold alongside Malcolm Hill and a fully recovered Coleman-Lands, the Illini could be a much different team and end the season in much different fashion from each of the past three.