Kendrick Nunn injury leaves Malcolm Hill as lone Illini at Media Day

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Kendrick Nunn injury leaves Malcolm Hill as lone Illini at Media Day

Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center, on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. The Illini won 86-60.

Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center, on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. The Illini won 86-60.

Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center, on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. The Illini won 86-60.

Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center, on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. The Illini won 86-60.

By Alex Roux

Usually preseason media days aren’t much more than subdued gatherings, full of cookie-cutter answers and the softest of soft sports news stories.

Illinois basketball has managed to break that monotony two times in a week’s span, although not the way anyone would hope.

Last Thursday, Illini head coach John Groce announced at Illinois Media Day that sophomore forward Leron Black would be sidelined for roughly 4-6 weeks with a meniscus tear. One week later, the Illini program tweeted that junior guard Kendrick Nunn suffered a left thumb injury minutes before Groce was set to take the podium at Big Ten Media Day in Rosemont, Ill.

According to junior Malcolm Hill, Nunn suffered the injury in practice while going for a steal. Hill said Nunn finished the practice and didn’t notice any pain until afterward. Nunn was scheduled to attend Big Ten Media Day, but stayed in Champaign for further evaluation with a hand specialist.

“We’ll deal with it,” Groce said. “We have a ‘next man up’ philosophy, our guys know that. We’re not going to make excuses, we’re not going to take shortcuts, we’re not going to complain. We’re going to figure it out. That’s what we do.”

Luckily for the health of the remaining Illini, Thursday was the last scheduled pre-season media day. Hopefully that means no more injuries.

I wrote just two days ago how the Illini’s misfortune with injuries is skewing any possible projections made for the 2015-16 squad, making an preseason evaluation of this team almost impossible. With Nunn’s health status currently unknown (Groce said he would know more late Thursday) the Illini are in real trouble.

Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. Nunn’s injury raises the number of key contributors who have lost time to injury since the beginning of last season to six players. Former Illini Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby, as well as current players Jalen Coleman-Lands, Tracy Abrams (twice) Black, and now Nunn have all missed substantial practice or playing time. These aren’t role players missing time, these are starters. It’s unprecedented and extremely unfortunate.

Even if Coleman-Lands (recovering from a stress fracture in his leg), Black and Nunn are all somehow ready to go for game one, the lost practice time will haunt the Illini. Maybe Nunn’s injury won’t cause him to miss extended time, but any pain in his shooting hand has the potential to be a nagging issue at minimum.

Nunn is a phenomenal player who is expected to carry a heavy load for Illinois this year. His potential absence on the court will force freshmen like Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan to step up, while his absence at Media Day Thursday made for an unusual scene. All other Big Ten teams had at least two player representatives.

Hill was the only Illini player in attendance, and he took his enhanced responsibility in stride. No one on the Illinois team is equipped to deal with the media quite like him. He embraced his roundtable discussion with the media, chatting and laughing as if he was playing video games with his friends instead of facing strangers in a formal setting.

Even though it arguably was the case before Nunn went down, this team’s immediate fate rests squarely on the shoulders of Hill. If you watched him glide through media scrutiny with ease Thursday, you could be convinced that Hill’s in control, that he’s got this.

“Injuries like this, they don’t really bug us at all,” Hill said. “We’re upset that it’s happening, but at the same time, we’re just keeping positive and praying for a speedy recovery.”

All Hill could do was repeat Groce’s mantra: “It’s next man up.”

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94