Chain Mail: Illini injury epidemic

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner and lead basketball reporter Derek Piper trade e-mails about Illinois basketball's rash of injuries, its impact on the season and head coach John Groce

Jeremy Werner: Put Malcolm Hill foam-padded roam with no sharp corners and lock him away for the next couple weeks! This no longer is an injury "bug" for the Illinois basketball team. It's an injury epidemic and it apparently feasts on talent. The Illini lost their second-best scorer for eight weeks as Kendrick Nunn will miss eight weeks after he undergoes surgery Wednesday to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb (his shooting hand). That's injuries to four of the Illini's top six players: Nunn, Tracy Abrams (out for the season), Leron Black (4-6 weeks, meniscus) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (just returning to basketball activities after a stress fracture in his lower left leg). So, Mr. Piper, what would you guess is the Illini's starting lineup for the Nov. 13 opener vs. North Florida in Springfield?

Derek Piper: That's a good question, and I don't want to hurt myself thinking too hard about it. North Florida presents a tough matchup, as they were a tournament team last season and lost only one player from their top eight in rotation. Last year, they went with a smaller lineup and started a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in the frontcourt. The Ospreys do have a 6-foot-11 center in Romelo Banks, and they may choose to start him to combat against Mike Thorne Jr. The big question for Illinois is who do you start at the four if Black is out? You could go with Michael Finke and try to outmatch them with your size. However, that can play the other way as well when it comes to defending a smaller, more athletic lineup. North Florida is a perimeter-oriented team, and they were able to fight against Purdue's size last year and steal a win in West Lafayette.

The Illini still need to figure out their point guard situation, and whoever the starter is will be tested against junior point guard Dallas Moore. He averaged 15.8 points per game last season, and he shot nearly 39 percent from beyond the arc. That may lead you to starting Khalid Lewis given his defensive ability. North Florida loves the three-ball, as their top six minutes-eaters shot at least 35 percent from deep last year. So defense will be at a premium for John Groce when he thinks about picking a lineup. We'll also have to see the progress of Coleman-Lands. You'd expect him to participate in some five-on-five soon if he is going to be ready for the opener. To this point, he has only shot on his own and worked through some conditioning.

With the game sitting three and a half weeks away, here is my best guess for the starting lineup...

1 - Khalid Lewis

2 - Aaron Jordan

3 - D.J. Williams

4 - Malcolm Hill

5 - Mike Thorne Jr.

The hope is that Coleman-Lands can be slotted in there, but until he goes through a practice, I'm not sure I can put him into the starting lineup. I think a lot hinges on how Jordan and Williams look in the exhibition game. If Groce doesn't feel comfortable starting both, then I think you see Finke at the four - assuming Black will be out.

This has the makings of being a scary one for the Illini on Friday the 13th. Talk about bad luck, Mr. Werner. You are playing away from home with a laundry list injury patients, and you have the toughest opponent of any Big Ten program for the opener. Every day has seemed like Friday the 13th with this program over the last few months.

Werner: By my count, the Illini have eight healthy scholarship players, along with walk-ons Alex Austin and Cameron Liss. Regardless of who starts, Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams -- two players some discussed redshirting earlier this summer -- now must make huge contributions early. Obviously, we expect inconsistency, but do you think either is ready for the immediate spotlight?

Piper: It is typically a roller coaster with freshmen, and that fits right in with what Williams has been before he arrived in Champaign. You're really hoping for more consistency from him, because when he's good, he makes you want to put on a pair of shades when you look at his future. But Williams still has days or stretches when he disappears. You can overcome that when it comes to scoring, but you can't have him out on the floor if he isn't scoring or playing defense. Williams has not been known as a good defender, and that will probably be a big fear for Groce when it comes to starting him or not. I've also heard that turnovers have been a cause for concern in practice. But that's what happens when you put the ball in the hands of freshmen. On the other side of the coin, Williams will also show you why he can be special.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that either one of these guys are necessarily ready to start on a Big Ten team that has NCAA tournament aspirations. But there may not be a choice otherwise. Williams may be a little better suited for it because he has played at the top level coming up - EYBL, elite camps, USA basketball and Simeon. Although, he can be head-scratching at times. Both players are good enough to play at this level, and that's why they are here. But whether they're ready to be thrown into the fire is another question.

Werner: Looking at the schedule, the Illini have some tough tests early. North Florida (Nov. 13), North Dakota State (Nov. 15), Providence (Nov. 18) and UAB (Nov. 27) all made the NCAA Tournament last season. You'd hope Black and Coleman-Lands are back before the Thanksgiving tournament in Niceville, Fla., when the Illini play UAB and either Virginia Tech or a loaded Iowa State team. Then the Illini host Notre Dame for the State Farm Center unveiling before the schedule levels off with Western Carolina, Yale, UIC, South Dakota and Missouri. Maybe Nunn is back for the Braggin' Rights game.

But what is the goal for this team during its 13-game nonconference schedule?

Ten wins -- no easy task now -- seemingly would set them up with at least a chance at the NCAA Tournament, but that means they'd at least have to go 9-9 in Big Ten play, which will be tough. But a fully healthy Illini team certainly seems capable of that.

Eleven or more nonconference wins would be pretty amazing, and it'd likely mean that Malcolm Hill played like an All-Big Ten player and a future pro -- of which he is capable. But given the injuries, it's probably going to be tough for this thin team to both beat the good teams (Providence, Iowa State and Notre Dame) and avoid a slip up against a non-power five team.

Piper: Getting through the first three games without a loss would be a superb start, considering all three opponents went to the dance last year. North Florida is going to be pretty darn tough with who they are returning. North Dakota State is bringing back six of their top seven points producers, but they will be without the top scorer in the Summit League last year in Lawrence Alexander (18.9 ppg). It won't be easy, but the goal will be to take care of business at "home" in Springfield. An early trip to Providence is going to be a daunting test, even though the Friars no longer have LaDontae Henton, who led the Big East in scoring last season. But the Illini will be up against one of the top point guards in the country in Kris Dunn. The 6-foot-4 guard led the Big East in assists (7.5 per game) and steals (2.6 per game) last year. Dunn also averaged 15.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, and he is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Illini will really miss Rayvonte Rice's on-ball defense in that one.

As you mentioned, the tough tests don't stop there. UAB is bringing back five of their top six scorers, and if the Illini get past them, they will likely clash with a top-10 team in Iowa State. And I haven't even mentioned the game most Illini fans have circled on the calendar, which is the State Farm Center opener against Notre Dame. No Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton is a plus for the home squad, but the Irish can still score with three guys who averaged double figures last season.

I'd set the baseline at 10 wins for this team in the nonconference. Anything above that would be outstanding. The first three games will really set the tone, and I don't think you could complain if the Illini come away 2-1 with some time to get ready (and hopefully healthy) for the trip to Florida during the week of Thanksgiving.

Werner: Needless to say, Illinois has an uphill battle this season, especially early. And that brings us to John Groce

Most thought this could season would be a make-or-break season for Groce. NCAA Tournament or bust, some thought. If healthy, this team should be an NCAA Tournament team, but of course it's not. It's a shame but it doesn't look like we'll be able to evaluate much this season -- unless Groce overachieves (tournament berth) or severely underachieves (under .500 record) with this team.

No one wants to hear excuses for coaches -- especially one who has missed two straight NCAA Tournament and one whose team had five straight embarrassing halves to end the 2014-15 season -- but you have to sympathize with Groce here. If the team misses the tournament, it's hard to blame the coach when his team wasn't healthy to start the season and had moving parts trying to gel all the way into January.

I'd hate to kick the can down the road for another season, but this season is no longer simply "NCAA Tournament or bust" for Groce, in my opinion. I know John Groce doubters -- and they're right to doubt following struggles to put together a top-half Big Ten roster after four years -- won't like that.

Groce has made mistakes and is accountable for them, and he must get as much as he can out of this team -- and probably show some recruiting progress with a promising start to the Class of 2017 -- but I don't know many coaches in the country who could succeed with four of their five best players injured.

Piper: Yeah, I think there has to be an expectations overhaul for this season. Obviously, that makes last season's collapse all the more frustrating. For whatever reason, Groce could not get his guys to come together when it mattered most. It's really a blessing for him that his team in Year One overachieved and got to the NCAA tournament. Maybe he can get this team to overachieve early and put themselves in a position for a run when guys get healthy. But I don't think you can consider that the expectation.

There's no doubt in my mind that this team has to compete and avoid a dumpster fire situation. I think a lot will be on Groce to get his guys to fight for him and for themselves this season. I'm not going to chalk it up as "NCAA tournament or bust" either, but there has to be a mix of results and signs of promise going into the future. I think recruiting in the 2017 class can play a key role there.

But it might get tough if there is an AD change, which would make Groce's status beyond this season even more uncertain. That isn't a good recipe for early commitments. I sympathize with Groce for the way things have played out going into this season, and I think others will be forced to feel the same way. Unfortunately, there isn't anything substantive to fall back on during the previous two seasons.

Thus, you're looking at missing the NCAA tournament three years in a row for the first time in 36 years. I'm not ready to bury this team before they play the first game. If they miss the tournament, I don't think that should tip the scale towards him getting fired. The question will be whether he has done enough prior to that to warrant another year, but more importantly, has he done enough to prepare for a future ascension? I like the roster that is shaping up for the 2016-17 season, with the exception of the center position. But a new AD would add another layer to this situation.


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