Illinois basketball head coach John Groce has always been about playing the cards you're dealt, and unfortunately, the Illini have already had a handful of unlucky draws with the rash of injuries that have occurred over the last few months.
On Thursday, Groce announced at media day that sophomore forward Leron Black has suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee. Black had surgery on Friday morning and he is expected to miss four to six weeks.
“He’s one tough cookie. He’s probably had it for a while, to be honest,” Groce said. “A lot of guys may not be able to have that kind of pain tolerance or threshold but he’s a pretty tough dude. Fortunately for us, it will be a pretty quick deal.”
Groce added that he believes Black’s approach will have him back sooner rather than later.
“Leron is one of those guys that is very thorough in everything that he does,” Groce said. “He’ll have a sense of urgency. He’ll do the right things. He’ll listen to the doctors. He’ll listen to our trainers. A lot like JCL. So we’re looking forward to his comeback.”
As for Black himself, he did not have much to say on the topic but he was positive about the outlook.
“Just trying to rehab and get back as soon as possible,” he said. “I know everything happens for a reason.”
The Illini have been through this dance enough times to make the fan base nauseous, and you’d have to think those inside the program feel something similar. To add on to the unlucky fortune, junior point guard Jaylon Tate sustained a concussion earlier this week in practice and it has kept him out of action.
However, Tate is expected to make a quick return and he said he was feeling better on Thursday.
“It was just a situation of going hard in practice and it just happened,” Tate said. “I’m going through the process but I feel good right now and expect to be out there soon.”
But all in all, you can’t help but start to ask the 'why' question—or even 'what's next'. The Illini lost starting point guard Tracy Abrams before the season began for the second straight year. Four days before that was announced, Illinois released that top freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands would be out indefinitely with a stress fracture.
You could even look back to last season when Illinois’ top scorer Rayvonte Rice broke his hand in practice and missed a chunk of the Big Ten season. Is it possible to avoid these incidents, especially since they’re all occurring on the practice court?
Ultimately, the game of basketball isn’t played in a bubble and the Illini need to go hard in practice to be ready for game-day battles. Injuries have been the ill-fated theme of the offseason, but Groce is hopeful that they can get them out of the way early on.
“We’ve went through a little bit of the injury bug with this team,” he said. “We’re hoping we can kind of find our way through that in the early part of the preseason and be ready to go once we start gameplay on our opener on November 13th.”
As for the message to his guys, Groce is keeping things simple.
“The next guy has got to be ready to go. That’s all you can do—control what you can control,” he said.
The good news is that Coleman-Lands was bootless at media day and he is progressing better than most expected. When he’s on his game, it’s not a stretch to consider him the most talented freshman guard in the Big Ten.
Having him ready to go this season would be huge for the Illini, especially with what he brings with his ability to make shots at a high level. Right now, that is the expectation. Groce said that as of Thursday, Coleman-Lands is on track to be ready for the season opener.
“It feels great. To be able to walk out here on two feet, people take it for granted,” Coleman-Lands said. “As of right now, I have a little plan set out for me. I just take it day by day. It’s a gradual plan and I’m just working my way into it.”
Some feared that the impact freshman would be sidelined for the entire year. Coleman-Lands admitted that was a thought in his head as well.
“Definitely, because it was a possibility. I didn’t look at it like that. I tried to look at the positives,” he said. “I believe things happen for a reason and I cherished it when I realized I could walk and play. Right now, I’m just trying to make the most out of it. It’s making me even hungrier for the season.”
His teammates are just as excited to have him back, including fellow freshman D.J. Williams.
“I love JCL. He’s a sniper and I love his game,” Williams said. “It’s great to have him coming back and I know he’s going to do big things.”
As for the collection of injuries as a whole, the team is staying focused on the goal. They are determined to succeed regardless of the circumstances. Tate said there are no ‘what-ifs’ with this team.
Coleman-Lands reiterated that message, and he said everyone needs to be ready to contribute at the highest level.
“Right now, we don’t look at it and start worrying about injuries. You prepare yourself, and as Coach Groce believes, it’s got to be next man up,” Coleman-Lands said. “If everyone is working hard, it shouldn’t be a problem. It should be a chance for somebody to show what they have. Everybody on this team can play.”
Injuries will continue to be the talk outside the walls of Ubben, but on the inside, it is business as usual. This team believes they have what it takes to win, and with the season opener just more than a month away, they’ll have a chance to show that soon enough.