Leron Black is not the same player or athlete that he was prior to surgery to remove the meniscus in his right knee in October. He has been in and out of the lineup due to soreness in his knee -- missing three of 10 games, including Wednesday's win over Yale -- and has been largely ineffective when he has played. Black is averaging 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 1.8 minutes per game, down from 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game last season. He is shooting 41.7 percent (including 1-for-11 his last two games), down from 47.5 percent last season. His fouls committed per 40 minutes also has worsened, increasing from 7.3 last season to 9.0 this season. Black's rebounder percentages have actually slightly improved, kudos to Black's toughness and tenacity. But anyone who watches Black this season sees that he just isn't the real Leron Black. His athleticism -- his biggest strength outside of his tenacity -- has been sapped. That's affected his quickness (you see it when he runs the court or defends) and his lift (you see it on his shot).
Without Black, the Illini are a bad rebounding team. That was easy to see Wednesday when Yale -- a top-20 rebounding team -- almost doubled the Illini on the glass (48 to 25). The Illini already lost its best rebounder Mike Thorne Jr. -- possibly for the season -- with the same injury. Without Black -- also an elite rebounder -- the Illini are left incredibly vulnerable in the post and on the glass. Thorne (15.6 OR%, 29.6 DR%) and Black (11.0 OR%, 25.6 DR%) are elite rebounders. The Illini's next best defensive rebounder? Malcolm Hill (14.1 DR%). The Illini's next best offensive rebounder? Maverick Morgan (6.6 OR%). Finke and Morgan are not strong rebounders. The Illini will need Kendrick Nunn and the rest of the guards to help crash the galss.
So for Illinois, the question is "To play Leron Black or not to play him?" There's a reason John Groce cautioned that players returning from injury won't simply return to their normal selves once they return to the court (though Nunn has proven an exception). Recovery often includes soreness, mental recovery and setbacks. "Soreness is one of the complications," said Dr. Ben Kim, a physical therapist at Mettler Center Physical Therapy in Champaign. "Any time you have surgery and there's a lot of trauma in that area, it needs adequate time to recover. In the midst of recovering sometimes -- whether it's because it's not conditioned enough or whether there's been a movement that could have caused extra trauma -- something like soreness or even a little bit of pain could be a possible complication. It doesn't indicate a big injury or anything like that. It's just part of the recovery process."
So what's the best course of action for Illinois? "For a player like him who really relies on his energy and his athleticism, playing through it will alter his style or just make him less effective, I would say," Kim said. "I think it's really player-specific. A different player or shooter may be able to just fight through it, but someone who really relies on their athleticism, I think that psychological component of, 'I'm not able to move or be as quick as I want or as explosive as I want,' that could really affect his game. At this point, probably just rest and properly rehabbing it. ...All those things could have affected it. For him, resting it and rehabbing it properly and coming back at it in a time where he is more comfortable."
The Illini have only three games in the next 19 days before the Big Ten tipoff against Michigan -- and all those games are winnable (though not guarantees) without Black. To make any semblance of a run to the NCAA Tournament during Big Ten play, the Illini need Black to be as healthy as possible. The best course of action is to rest him against UIC -- which Groce said he will do -- on Saturday. That'd give him two weeks off without games. If he's good to go, he can play some minutes against South Dakota before the Dec. 23 game against Missouri. He'll then have another week off before Michigan. If he's not ready to go for either, keep sitting him. The schedule might actually do the Illini a favor for once this season.
Illini football recruiting is in a tenuous position. Not a surprise after the university basically gave Bill Cubit one more year to be the interim coach. Just an illogical move, as I wrote the day it happened. The sharks are swimming around Illinois prospects. Syracuse just offered defensive line recruit Josh Black. Missouri is going after East St. Louis offensive lineman Tre'Vour Simms. Several teams are inquiring about Kentrail Moran. And it's getting harder to sell Illini prospects on the fence. Defensive back Bryce Banks chose NC State over Illinois following last weekend's official visit to Illinois, though I hear enrolling early (an option at NC State and not Illinois) was a big part of his decision. Pass rusher Shemar Smith chose Oregon State over Illinois following an official visit last week to the Illini. LB Tymar Sutton appears high on his new Iowa State offer despite the Illini being atop his list for most of the past few months. Four-star defensive back Isaiah Simmons likes the Illini but they'll have to beat Nebraska (and maybe Kansas). The Class of 2016 could get smaller before it gets bigger, and adding quality talent will be difficult for the staff -- just as most of us expected when Cubit received a two-year deal.
I'm hearing Illinois football could announce new staff members during the weekend or early next week. The jobs are posted and the application process closes on Friday. One logical guy to watch: Missouri offensive line coach A.J. Ricker. Ricker -- who coached under Cubit at Western Michigan and Illinois -- left Illinois after one season (2013) to take a job at his alma mater under Gary Pinkel, who retired due to health reasons. New Mizzou coach Barry Odom did not retain Ricker, who was the best offensive line coach/recruiter Illinois has had in that spot for the past five seasons. Tom Brattan is still on staff, but Cubit could shake things up.