Illini basketball awaits return of Cosby, Rice

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Illinois has won three straight games without Cosby and Rice.

Although Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby are suspended indefinitely, their absence doesn’t mean they’re off the minds of the Illinois men’s basketball team.

The Illini, who have been without Rice and Cosby because of suspension since Jan. 31, have found consistency in their teammates’ absence. But the team is cognizant that Rice and Cosby’s reinsertion into the rotation will make Illinois better.

“When everybody gets back, we think we can be really good,” sophomore guard Malcolm Hill said. “We’ve been doing all right without them, so when they get back on the court it’s going to help our team a lot.”

Rice and Cosby were initially taken off the active roster due to injury — Rice broke a bone in his left hand before facing Maryland on Jan. 7 and Cosby tore the retina in his left eye against Indiana on Jan. 18.

As both players neared the end of their rehab, it looked as if the Illini would be back at full strength, but Rice and Cosby’s return was postponed. The pair were indefinitely suspended for violating team rules before Illinois’ game against Penn State on Jan. 31.

While Groce has yet to announce which team rule Rice and Cosby broke, he did say Illinois has one simple team rule.

“Don’t do anything to embarrass the University of Illinois, the men’s basketball program, yourself or your family,” Groce said after the Penn State game.

Neither Cosby nor Rice has had his suspensions lifted yet. But in the absence of the duo, the Illini have found consistency.

While Illinois dropped five of its first eight Big Ten games, the team has turned its season around with two of its most productive offensive players on the bench. The Illini are on a three-game winning streak since Cosby and Rice were suspended and have improved their conference record to 6-5. 

Rice and Cosby’s reinstatement may be a setback for the Illini’s chemistry but senior center Nnanna Egwu sees it differently.

“That’s a good problem to deal with,” Egwu said. “We’d rather have that than have it the other way around, where there’s no chemistry at all. When it does happen, we’ll figure it out.”

Hill said that while Rice and Cosby have been practicing well, he sees a bigger on-court problem than a lack of chemistry with their return: conditioning.

Groce added that both players are “full-go” in practice, both conditioning and rust will play major factors in Rice and Cosby’s production once they return.

“There is a transition period involved with that,” Groce said. “As high a level as Ray Rice was playing at before he got hurt, it’s not going to be like he’s available today and he’s back to 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, 17 (points) and eight (rebounds per game). It just doesn’t work that way in sports.”

While their return will mean the reduction of some bench players’ roles, the team is ready for the reinsertion of Rice and Cosby when the Big Ten schedule winds down.

“We’re really looking forward, as a group, to when they come back,” Egwu said.

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.