Youth Movement

The learning curve has been steep for the Illini freshmen, but playing through the growing pains is starting to pay dividends. We take a look at the youth movement that's occurring on the Illinois roster.

Freshmen make up the majority of the eligible Illinois basketball roster this season, but understandably, the freshmen aren't getting a majority of the minutes.

However, that trend is quickly starting to change.

At the beginning of the year, the freshmen were playing mostly in relief of starters when they got in foul trouble. Rayvonte Rice was the main offensive weapon, and several of the young players were still struggling to accommodate to the college game.

Fast forward to the tail end of the Big Ten season, and two of those freshmen have already cracked into the starting lineup, and others are getting regular minutes each game.

There's a youth movement going on.

To put things in perspective, Illinois freshmen only totaled a combined 30 minutes in the Big Ten opener against Indiana, which, it is worth noting, was an overtime game.

Even by the time the Illini got into the swing of the Big Ten season, the freshmen were still seeing what most would consider to be limited minutes.

Starting with the Michigan State on January 18th through Wisconsin on February 4th, freshmen Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Maverick Morgan, Malcolm Hill, and Austin Colbert were averaging a combined 52 minutes per game. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill accounted for 30.2 of those 52 minutes during that stretch.

Here's a game-by-game breakdown of total freshman minutes and minutes by Nunn and Hill combined:

OpponentFreshman mpgNunn/Hill mpg
Michigan State6542
Ohio State3920

Then came the tipping point. Riding an eight-game losing streak into a road matchup with Penn State, John Groce shook up the lineup and thrust two of his freshmen into the starting lineup to shake things up a bit and provide a spark.

Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, Groce's two top-rated freshmen coming out of high school, got their first career college starts, and Illinois ended the losing streak at eight. Nunn led the team that night with 19 points and Hill chipped in 11 more. Together, the two netted half of the Illini's point total that night, and ever since, the lineup has remained the same.

Each of the last five games (including Nebraska), Nunn and Hill have remained in the starting lineup, and while Illinois still lost to Nebraska on the road and to Ohio State at home, they have won three of their last five, and seem to be playing with a refreshed intensity.

Over the last 5 games, the freshmen collectively have averaged 71.8 minutes per game, including a combined total of 51.4 minutes per game from Nunn and Hill.

Here's a look at the last five contests game-by-game:

OpponentFreshman mpgNunn/Hill mpg
Penn State8654
Ohio State6453

It might have been a shock to the system for the freshmen to play a combined 86 minutes against Penn State, but the trend continues. Kendrick Nunn has led the team in scoring on more than one occasion. For someone who struggled on defense and looked very tentative to start the year, he has taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and become one of the go-to-guys on a team that had become overly-dependent upon the scoring of Rayvonte Rice.

Malcolm Hill still shows sometimes that he is prone to freshman mistakes, but his effort and outside shooting provide dimensions that haven't always been present up to this phase of the season.

So where do they go from here? Strike while the iron is hot. These guys, especially Nunn and Hill, are going to be vital to the future success of the program. Bertrand and Ekey are still important contributors, but getting Nunn and Hill minutes now is going to pay heavy dividends later.

Again, many expected the freshmen to play this season, but for some to be stepping up this much and this early is an encouraging sign for what's to come.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories