Battered Illinois basketball heads to Rutgers


Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Illinois head coach John Groce patrolling the sideline during Illinois’ 78-68 loss to Michigan at State Farm Center on Wednesday, December 30.

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

As the Swiss novelist Max Frisch once said, “My biggest fear is repetition.” At this point, the same must hold true for the Illinois men’s basketball team — especially its training staff.

The same story has been written multiple times this season, but Illinois will be short-handed once again on Wednesday night when they travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, to face Rutgers. 

According to head coach John Groce, freshman Michael Finke and junior Kendrick Nunn are both doubtful to compete after suffering injuries in Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin. After a hard knee-to-knee collision, Finke has yet to practice, and although an MRI showed no structural damage, its unclear when he’ll return. Groce believes Nunn has a better chance of playing than Finke, but the Illini’s second-leading scorer missed Monday’s practice and was non-contact during Tuesday’s practice.

Groce didn’t rule either player out for Illinois’ tenth Big Ten battle of the year and will see if they can suit up come game time. Groce called Finke very unlikely.

“I know our trainers are going to try to work some magic, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Groce said.

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Finke and Nunn make up 30 percent of Illinois’ scoring. With center Mike Thorne Jr. still out, Finke’s absence could be even more detrimental, since junior Maverick Morgan and Cameron Liss — who has
totaled 21 minutes in his collegiate career — would be the only true big men left on the roster.

Luckily for the Illini, its newest patch of injuries comes against a team that has been just as banged up. The Scarlet Knights have been without its second leading scorer, junior forward DeShawn Freeman, since nonconference play. They have also missed freshman Ibrahim Diallo’s size down low and just recently saw freshman forward Jonathan Laurent return from an extended absence.

“They’ve gone through some injuries, and obviously, I can feel that pain as much as anybody,” Groce said. “They did get Laurent back, which gives them a chance to play a little bit bigger if they choose to do that.”

Similar to Illinois, Rutgers has been forced to play small for much of the season. Without Finke, Groce said there’s a definite possibility that junior captain Malcolm Hill could see time at the five in ultra-small, four-guard sets.

Groce doesn’t want to go small just to match the Scarlet Knights, though.

“You can make the case Purdue is probably the biggest team we’ve played, and we were pretty small that day and played well,” Groce said. “A lot of it is just you gotta try and take advantage of what you have at the time. I think both teams will have the ability to go small and will also have the ability to go big.”

Rutgers is one of two teams in the Big Ten without a conference victory thus far. Even though they play small, the Scarlet Knights attempt the least three-pointers in the Big Ten and hold the second-worst shooting percentage from deep. On the flip side, Rutgers is next-to-last in the conference in opponent’s three-point percentage, which is something a small-ball Illinois lineup may take advantage of — especially after botching finish after finish at the rim on Sunday.

As always, Groce is focused on taking care of the ball and keeping up the defensive effort that he said has been solid of late.

“It’s just the little things,” Groce said.

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