By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Well, so much for any chance of seeing the Streaking Illini.
Instead, during its first chance to string back-to-back victories together in more than a month, the Illinois basketball team saw its defense stripped naked by Nebraska’s Shavon Shields on Wednesday night. And then after halftime, its offense seemingly wandered off into the cornfields around Lincoln of an eventual 67-58 loss.
Perhaps it didn’t want to watch the defense either.
Here’s to hoping that both the offense and defense make up and find their collective way back to Champaign for Saturday’s game against Ohio State. Although, with the Illini now just 14-11 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten, this frustrating season has undoubtedly reached the point where everything is much more about the future than it is about the present.
That’s something that even John Groce seems to have accepted.
On Wednesday, after Illinois saw Shields erupt for 33 points despite averaging only nine in Big Ten play, the Illini’s second-year coach said, “I’m trying to teach our basketball team, the freshmen in particular, how you win and why you get beat.”
In large part, it will be this current crop of freshmen that will decide just how Illinois wins and why it gets beat in the coming years. And in spite of Wednesday’s loss to the Cornhuskers, the Illini did still see some positive results from freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, who combined for 17 points in their second game since being moved into the starting lineup.
Their production got me wondering about how Illinois’ current freshman class stacks up with two of its more celebrated ones over the past 15 years: the rookie groups of 2009-10 and 1998-99.
During both of those seasons, Illinois struggled. In 2009-10, it finished the regular season 19-14 and was relegated to the NIT, while the 1998-99 bunch went 14-18 overall and missed the postseason altogether.
However, based on the development of their talented youngsters, those groups went on to enjoy eventual tourney success. The freshmen from 1998-99 got all the way to an Elite Eight as seniors in 2001-02, while the 2009-10 freshmen beat Colorado as seniors last March, giving Illinois its first NCAA Tournament victory in seven years before narrowly missing a second one against Miami.
In 1998-99, the freshman class of Cory Bradford (15.4 points per game), Damir Krupalija (4.6), Lucas Johnson (4.4) and Robert Archibald (3.0) combined to score 27.4 points a game. As seniors, they totaled 33 during the 24-9 Elite Eight campaign.
In 2009-10, the freshman class of D.J. Richardson (10.5), Bandon Paul (7.8), Tyler Griffey (3.3) and Stan Simpson (0.5) combined to score 22.1 points per game. Three seasons later as seniors, the group – sans Simpson, who transferred – totaled 36.1 as Illinois went 23-13.
This season, the Illini group of freshmen comprised of Nunn (4.9), Hill (.3.8), Jaylon Tate (2.3), Maverick Morgan (1.6) and Austin Colbert (1.6) are combining to average only 14.2 points per game. However, since Nunn and Hill were inserted into the lineup two games ago and Groce began to give his freshmen heavier minutes overall, the group has elevated its production to 29 points per game, with Nunn chipping in 14 and Hill 9.5.
That’s quite an improvement, and the increase in overall energy on the court has been apparent for Illinois. As for what this freshman group will have done by the time they’re seniors? Well, that remains to be seen.
But one thing is for certain: the Illini’s future is sure a lot more fun to look at than their present.