The Daily Illini

As injuries mount, Illini basketball’s prospects grows murkier

By Alex Roux

Tweet: With the season a month away, Leron Black’s injury casts further uncertainty on upcoming #Illini seasonHead coach John Groce was about six minutes into his eight-minute opening statement at Illinois Media Day last Thursday when he dropped the latest injury bomb to hit Illini basketball.

Sophomore forward Leron Black is expected to miss about 4-6 weeks with a torn meniscus.

Way to bury the lede there, Coach.

After the opening presser, I bumped into Groce as the congregation of media walked from the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration building toward Ubben Practice Facility for the next round of interviews.

I offered him my condolences regarding Leron’s injury, and his wry response was a sad reflection of what his roster has gone through as of late.

“Only four to six weeks?” Groce said of Black’s misfortune. “That’s nothing compared to injuries like Tracy (Abrams’). If it was up to Leron he’d be playing tomorrow.”

Groce’s comment was lighthearted, of course. But his sentiment is entirely accurate. A preseason knee injury to a promising power forward in the midst of a crucial year of player development should be of great cause for concern, but many Illini fans are probably thanking the heavens that the news wasn’t more disastrous.

After the past couple of years, they’ve been conditioned to expect the worst.

The back-to-back lost seasons for Abrams are at the forefront of the Illini’s recent injury woes, and are particularly troubling due to the seemingly random cruelty of twice cutting an athlete down in eerily similar fashion.

Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands has dealt with a stress fracture in his leg since July, and the nature of his injury has been more frustrating than anything. Recovering from a stress fracture is a tricky balance, and the healing process varies on an individual level. Rarely is there a set-in-stone timetable for a return to the court.

Luckily for Illinois, Groce was cautiously optimistic Thursday, saying he believes the Coleman-Lands will be ready to play by the time games start in about a month. To what degree the two-plus months in a walking boot will hamper Coleman-Lands’ projected contributions as an impact freshman remains to be seen.

And though Groce has attempted to purge the memory of last season’s meltdown from his team’s collective memory, mid-season injuries to former Illini Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby serve as reminders of the scale of misfortune Groce’s roster has endured in the last calendar year.

Generally it seems like expectations are tempered for Groce’s fourth year, mainly due to a combination of injuries, a rejuvenated Big Ten and a listless finish to his third season. In just under a month from now, the Illini will take the floor at their temporary home in Springfield as a relative unknown.

Juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are known commodities, with ceilings as high as nearly any player in the Big Ten. We also know that Jaylon Tate is capable at point, and could be even more effective with an improved shooting stroke. Beyond that, this team is tough to gauge.

Transfer center Mike Thorne will be relied upon to provide a bruising presence inside, and redshirt freshman Michael Finke will see immediate time in the post in Black’s absence. The first few games in Springfield will give Groce a chance to see what which freshmen and transfers are ready to contribute, but early season matchups with Providence and potentially Iowa State pop up quickly. Getting Coleman-Lands and Black healthy will be critical in the Illini’s hopes for a solid start.

Illinois has received plenty of bad injury news to key players as of late. Maybe they’re due for some better news in their recovery.

Alex is a senior in AHS.?

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