With Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black out with injuries, Illini getting crushed on the interior

Illini coach John Groce said neither Thorne Jr. nor Black have practice yet; both still 'out indefinitely'

CHAMPAIGN - Look at the Illinois bench. If you played the six players in street clothes -- Mike Thorne Jr. (knee injury), Leron Black (knee injury), Kipper Nichols (transfer year), Khalid Lewis (mumps), Tracy Abrams (torn Achilles) and Mike LaTulip (redshirt season) -- against the current Illini rotation 10 times when healthy, how many games would Team Street Clothes win?

Three? Four? Five? More?

Illinois (8-7, 0-2 Big Ten) has a lot of talent going unused, mostly due to tattered tendons. If those tendons were never harmed, would it have changed the course of the Illini season? That's not a complete certainty, but it sure seems like a darn high probability.

The street clothes crew certainly would have a size and strength advantage over the active Illini. And that lack of interior muscle is absolutely crushing the Illini right now.

In the eight games since Thorne -- one of the elite rebounders in the country, let alone the Big Ten -- suffered a torn meniscus on Nov. 28 against Iowa State, Illinois has been outrebounded by a total of 300 to 250, an average of 37.5 to 31.3 rebounds per game

In six games without both Thorne and Black -- who has suffered from swelling and soreness since returning from his October surgery to remove a torn meniscus -- the Illini have been outrebounded by a total of 244 to 183, or an average of 40.7 to 30.5. 

During those six games, the Illini leading rebounders have been two wings, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, with redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke tying Nunn for a team-high five rebounds in a narrow win over UIC.

During those same six games, the Illini have been outscored in the paint 190 to 130, or an average of 31.7 to 21.7 points per game.

Neither Finke nor backup center Maverick Morgan give the Illini much of a rebounding presence (though Finke is improving), a weakness that will only get further exposed with Michigan State (Thursday at East Lansing) and Purdue (Sunday in Champaign) -- the Big Ten's top two rebounding teams -- coming up next.

And to those hoping for health to save the Illini interior, the returns for neither Black nor Thorne seem imminent quite yet.

"Obviously those guys try to do treatment and rehab every day," said Illini coach John Groce, who surely is tired of being asked for injury updates at each media availability. "Somedays, they respond better than other. Somedays, it swells, meaning the knees. They'll let me know when they're ready to practice.

"I will say this, I got a hard time believing they're going to play until they actually have a practice. They haven't been able to practice at all. Until they actually get out there for a practice and we think that's the right thing for them to do from a health perspective, nothing's really changed. They're still out, as I've said in reference to them last time in reference to Leron, they're out indefinitely. Their bodies have to respond in a certain way. We have to do what's right for them from a health perspective."

With Lewis out a second game with the mumps on Sunday -- an underrated loss that forced Jaylon Tate to play a career-high 34 minutes vs. Michigan, only to top that total with 37 minutes at Ohio State (would Lewis a better scorer and defender have made the play to make the difference at Ohio State?) -- Illinois' rotation was down to eight scholarship players and walk-on Alex Austin. With Lewis likely to return on Thursday against Michigan State, six of the 10 players in the current Illini rotation did not play with the team last season.

While injuries have crushed the Illini in the paint, Groce said his team hasn't let the adversity crush their spirit.

"Our guys have really -- I'm very proud of them -- they've stayed the course and they've been through a lot of adversity," Groce said. "It's very abnormal in terms of roster with some injuries and different things we've had to go through. But our guys have continued to view those obstacles as opportunities. Our younger guys, I think, are getting better. ...They're learning pretty quickly. I like what I'm seeing from them. They're controlling what they can control."

Groce feels his team is improving, even if that improvement hasn't resulted in any top-50 KenPom wins yet this season. Without Black and Thorne, the Illini are longshots to get wins over two top-seven KenPom teams this week.

But Groce's Illinois teams have bounced back from slow Big Ten starts in his previous three seasons (0-2 in 2015, 2-8 in 2014 and 2-7 in 2013) to make runs at the postseason. He hopes that culture of resiliency continues.

"We've been through some good stretches, some rough stretches for different reasons, different years," Groce said. "We have a little bit of a culture in place -- fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it -- where our guys are used to being kind of 'next man up.' They've dealt with a lot. I think that makes you a bit thicker-skinned. I think our guys have been that way. I thought we practiced really well leading into yesterday's game. I thought we played really well for 40 minutes. We just got to build on that. Our guys know that. They know that's what we expect, and they've really bought into that over our time here."

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