The talk of injuries and the frequency of new ones have been ad nauseam for the Illini basketball program leading up to this season.
The unfortunate nature of this three-month string has been unexplainable, as one guy after the next has gone down outside of game action. Players and coaches have tried to keep as much positivity as possible inside the walls of Ubben.
They have embraced the 'next man up' philosophy instilled by head coach John Groce, but even he began to show this situation has not been easy to brush off.
"I tried to make sure when I got out of bed this morning that I didn't trip over anything or, you know, tried to remain healthy between the walk from the hotel room down the elevator here to the press conference," Groce said at Big Ten Basketball Media Day last week. "To miss 80 games last year and then go through what we went through to this point this year early is a little bit unprecedented."
At media day, Groce announced that junior guard Kendrick Nunn sustained an injury to his left thumb. Nunn was scheduled to represent the Illini at media day along with Malcolm Hill, but he did not make the trip.
Over the weekend, Nunn wore a thumb spica splint, which covered his wrist and supported the thumb. Speculation is that Nunn may have at least partially torn a ligament in his thumb. In these cases, the thumb is typically immobilized for four to six weeks.
The Illini have not yet released an official report on Nunn's status. But according to a source, it is unlikely that Nunn will be ready for the season opener on Nov. 13.
Unfortunately, Nunn is not the only projected starter who has an uncertain status for the beginning of game action. Illini sophomore forward Leron Black underwent surgery on a torn meniscus earlier this month. It remains to be seen when he'll return to the practice court, but he has been making progress since the procedure.
"Leron is doing well. Leron is a tough kid," Groce said. "Surgery went great. He's already off crutches. He's already doing some type of cardiovascular exercise and doing some rehabilitation exercises with the knee as well. That's very encouraging, and we hope to get him back soon."
The third major injury focus is on freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, who continues to recover from a stress fracture in his left leg. Coleman-Lands was sidelined at the end of July, but he is working his way back on the practice court. Over the weekend, the talented sharpshooter got up some shots on a separate court while his teammates practiced together. He has been doing some conditioning as well.
Coleman-Lands is following the plan laid out for him by the staff, and Groce said earlier this month that his top freshman is on track to be ready for the season opener.
"I'm confident knowing my abilities and as far as my progress," Coleman-Lands said. "The gradual plan they have me working on, I feel confident that I'm going to be able to prepare myself to the best of my capability and play and still be the same player."
The Illini seemingly have just enough guys to conduct a practice, which makes it crucial for others to stay healthy. On Saturday, senior transfer Mike Thorne Jr. did not finish practice after an undisclosed minor injury. According to a source, Thorne is expected to be just fine.
That being said, the revolving door to the trainer's room has been alarming. Groce said he is most worried about the growth of his team as a unit when key pieces are out.
"We're going to get these guys back. The hardest part, what I learned last year, is when guys are coming in and out, and your team is changing throughout the course of a season, what I worry about as a coach more than anything is the growth of our team, our ability to continue to improve and get better," Groce said. "How do I accelerate our team's growth and development, give them some type of continuity and stability with what we're learning to make sure that we're getting better through the challenge of multiple injuries?"
It's going to be a big-time challenge for Groce, and it's one that his former boss, Thad Matta, is familiar with as well.
"It's unfortunate seeing the things they've had to deal with, but it is part of coaching. I've had Greg Oden, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger go down at one point, and those are three of the best players I've ever coached," Matta said. "You've got to find a way - somehow, someway - to bring together the guys that you have, knowing that these guys will be coming back. But it is challenging as a coach to find your way through it, and I have good faith that John will find a way to get it done."