Illinois basketball should be fresh after week off

Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn (25) attempts a shot during the game against Purdue at State Farm Center on Jan. 21, 2015. The Illini won 66-57.

For Illinois head coach John Groce and his team, a week off couldn’t have come at a better time. 

The Illini have been battered and bruised all season. Starting point guard Tracy Abrams is out for the year with a torn ACL. Leading scorer Rayvonte Rice and junior shooting guard Aaron Cosby have missed multiple games with injuries. Even Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, players who have picked up the slack in Rice’s absence, have had to overcome injuries along the way.

For the first time since the week of Dec. 20, the schedule allowed for an entire week devoid of games for Illinois following its loss to Minnesota last Saturday. After playing three games in six days, it was apparent the Illini were a physically drained team, relying heavily on a seven-man rotation due to their depleted roster. 

Coming off a week to prepare, Illinois faces Penn State on Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center. With extended rest, the Illini will certainly have fresher legs than they did during the Minnesota game, when every loose ball and long rebound seemed out of reach. And they might have a deeper roster, too. 

At his press conference Thursday, Groce didn’t rule out the possibility of both Rice and Cosby returning to the lineup Saturday. Due to the nature of their injuries and the progression of their medical timetables, it’s probably more likely we see Cosby (who has been cleared for contact activity) than Rice (who had yet to be cleared as of Thursday).

I’d bet we see a goggled Cosby in uniform with a street-clothed Rice on the bench against the Nittany Lions, but even one more body on the floor could have a huge impact for an Illini team staring down three more games in seven days during a crucial stretch of the season. 

Illinois enters the game at 13-8 overall, with a 3-5 record in Big Ten play. It pains me to realize that Penn State actually has a better overall record than the Illini at 14-7, however, the Nittany Lions have fallen off after a 12-1 start to the season. 

Playmaking point guard Tim Frazier is gone for Penn State, but leading scorer D.J. Newbill remains in a big way. Newbill is averaging 21.5 points per game, and if he can manage to not get ejected (like he did in his last visit to State Farm Center after punching Nunn) he figures to be the primary headache Saturday for the Illini defense. 

Newbill’s supporting cast isn’t all that intimidating, but Penn State will play hard for coach Pat Chambers and try to grind its way to a road win. Freshman Shep Garner and junior Brandon Taylor are the Nittany Lions’ other main scoring options, and both are averaging close to 10 points per game.

From here on out, every game is pivotal for the Illini if they’re going to play their way back into the NCAA tournament picture. They haven’t been able to win back-to-back games since defeating Missouri and Kennesaw State in nonconference, but have a great chance to do just that with Penn State and Rutgers coming to town. 

If Illinois can win the next two it will have an NCAA bubble-worthy record with a roster getting healthier by the day, albeit as a tougher portion of the schedule looms.  After losing eight straight games last season, the Illini got their season back on track with a win at Penn State. 

They have an opportunity to use the Nittany Lions as a springboard once again Saturday. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.