Illinois men’s basketball plagued by series of unfortunate events

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

Editor’s note: This story’s publication deadline was before the Illini played Yale on Dec. 9 and UIC on Dec. 12.

To describe the Illinois men’s basketball 2015-16 season as tumultuous thus far might be an understatement. Perhaps though, disastrous, calamitous or just downright unfortunate would do it better.

No matter how you describe it, however, things have been less than ideal for head coach John Groce in the early goings of the season. There are months of schedule left, though, and still plenty of room for this young team to improve, especially since it seems it has nowhere to go but up.

The downhill narrative began with the news that senior guard Tracy Abrams would miss yet another full season due to a torn Achilles he sustained in July. Just a month later, reports surfaced that up-and-coming forward Darius Paul had been arrested during Illinois’ trip to Europe and was dismissed from the team shortly after.

It was messy for the Illini months before the season even began — then the injuries really started to pile on.

Four-star recruit Jalen Coleman-Lands suffered a stress fracture that caused him to miss all basketball activities up until the start of the season. Sophomore forward Leron Black tore his meniscus right around media day. And shortly after, junior captain Kendrick Nunn underwent thumb surgery for an injury he sustained in practice.

The preseason outlook was bleak for Illinois, but junior captain Malcolm Hill emerged as the voice and driving force of the team early on.

“Next man up,” Hill said. “If we hang our heads, that’s when we’re defeated. It’s a challenge we have to face, and I’m just glad it’s before the season.”

With a depleted roster, Illinois suffered a season-opener loss for the first time in 16 years. The 93-81 defeat to North Florida put the first blemish on Groce’s November record since joining Illinois and began a stretch of mediocre play at the Illini’s temporary home in Springfield while renovations were completed at State Farm Center.

Early on, Hill and graduate transfer Mike Thorne, Jr. dominated the touches for Illinois. Groce called Hill the team’s “butcher, baker and candle stick maker” because of his stat-sheet stuffing start on both ends of the floor. Thorne Jr. also impressed early on with averages of 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds through seven games. Good things don’t seem to last very long for Illini fans lately, though, and Thorne Jr. went down with a torn meniscus that could have him out for the remainder of the season.

It was a blow that came just as reinforcements were arriving — Nunn and Black both suited up for Illinois’ return to State Farm Center on Dec. 2.

With the team’s more experienced players either playing ineffectively or not fit to play, the younger players are beginning to trend up.

Freshman forward Michael Finke could put the pain of Thorne’s injury quickly in the rear view — he’s second on the team in field goal percentage and exploded for a career-best 24 points in a win over Western Carolina.

Coleman-Lands has recovered well from his injury, leads Illinois in three-point percentage and has a game-winning shot over Chicago State under his belt. Groce has praised the recent work of freshmen Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams, who each bring defensive toughness and versatility.

A 4-5 start to the non-conference schedule is not what any team wants. However, besides the North Florida blunder, Illinois has yet to lose a game by more than five points and even held its own against No. 4 Iowa State at the Emerald Coast Classic.

This could be a defining year for Groce as he tries to somehow drag the Illini to their first NCAA tournament since 2013 — the development of the exciting youngsters may rightfully take top priority this season, though.

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