Injury-depleted Illini finish 15-19, fall in third round of Big Ten tournament

Illinois basketball (15-19, 12th in Big Ten) experienced many injuries and off-the-court issues this season.

The first blow occurred when point guard Tracy Abrams tore his achilles tendon in July, forcing him to sit out the entire season for the second-straight year. Two other would-be starters had season-ending surgeries shortly thereafter: center Mike Thorne Jr. and power forward Leron Black played in just eight games apiece before both went down with torn menisci.

Kendrick Nunn (broken thumb, five games), Jaylon Tate (dislocated pinky finger, four games), Khalid Lewis (mumps, two games) and Michael Finke (knee contusion, one game) also missed considerable time. Then, Black, Nunn and Tate were arrested for various off-court issues in the span of one month from mid-February to mid-March. Their legal proceedings are ongoing.

On the court, Illinois appeared out of sync and unable to run a clean, cohesive offensive system. Ball movement stalled in the team’s half-court sets, often resulting in contested, long-distance jumpers.

However, the injury-depleted Illini displayed resilience and execution in wins over then-No. 20 Purdue on Jan. 10 and then-No. 20 Iowa in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. A triple overtime win over Rutgers on Feb. 3 was the most exciting game in an otherwise down season for Illinois basketball.

The Illini lacked the talent and execution to compete in a stacked Big Ten. Illinois’ season came to an end in an 89-58 loss to Purdue in the third round of the conference tournament.

Junior Malcolm Hill took on a tremendous amount of responsibility; not only did he lead the Illini in scoring at 18.1 points per game, but he also snatched 6.6 rebounds per game and guarded every opposing team’s best player.

“I’m asking (Hill) to be the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker,” head coach John Groce said early in the season. “Be a captain, be efficient scoring – if you don’t mind, could you play four positions tonight?”

The 6-foot-6 Fairview Heights native earned second team All-Big Ten honors thanks to his stellar all-around play, which included a 34-point, 11-rebound, five-assist, three-block, two-steal performance against South Dakota and a 39-point, 13-rebound outing against Penn State.

Fellow captain Kendrick Nunn (15.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG) provided scoring and veteran leadership. Jalen Coleman-Lands (10.3 PPG) knocked down 87 three-pointers, breaking Cory Bradford’s previous record of 85 for most trey-balls in a season for an Illinois freshman. He made a season-high six three-pointers and dropped 26 points in the triple OT Rutgers game.

D.J. Williams is another promising young player for the Illini. He showed flashes of potential in limited minutes and could, with Coleman-Lands, become a key part of the program over the next couple seasons.

Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr. will likely seek medical hardship waivers from the NCAA, which would allow them to suit up again next year. Thorne Jr. is technically ineligible for the waiver, because NCAA rules mandate that a player cannot check into a game past the halfway point of the season.

Thorne Jr. played 16 lone minutes in a Jan. 19 loss at Indiana.

However, Groce has said he thinks Thorne Jr. still has a chance at obtaining a waiver because of special circumstances. The 6-foot-11 North Carolina native is a Type I diabetic, which slows down the recovery process due to weaker blood circulation.

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