By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Seemingly, it’s been years since Illini basketball last caught a break.
And then this week, when it finally did? Well, it was completely the wrong kind.
Namely, the fractured-left-hand-of-your-best-player-during-practice kind of break, which seems so terribly cruel to a struggling team and a suffering fan base, yet also so terribly Illinois.
In terms of mood, Orange is the New Blue.
Worn weary after having missed four of the past seven NCAA Tournaments and whiffing in so many high-profile recruiting battles, Illini Nation on Tuesday didn’t respond with a passionate online uproar so much as a collective sigh of resignation when the news broke that senior star Rayvonte Rice had broken his left hand and will be sidelined indefinitely (likely around a month or more) following surgery Wednesday.
It was almost as if the reaction was, “Of course he did.”
And if ever a fan base, a basketball program and, heck, an entire athletic department was in need of a win, the University of Illinois is.
But when you look at the schedule and see No. 11 Maryland as Wednesday’s opponent at State Farm Center as Illinois attempts to avoid an 0-3 Big Ten start, and then see recruiting juggernauts Kentucky and Kansas as the competition Thursday when five-star power forward Carlton Bragg announces his college destination, it’s difficult to feel optimistic.
Then again, perhaps John Groce’s Illini really are due for a break.
A good one.
As for Groce, it’s to his credit – and quite unlike a certain Illini football coach who loves to count the number of plays his team was away from winning following lopsided losses – that he hasn’t made excuses for his team’s struggles or its off-court misfortune.
On Tuesday, after announcing that leading scorer and rebounder Rice (17.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) will be out of the lineup for several weeks, Groce said:
“Ray’s one of the best players in the country. He was playing at that level. Not one guy can replace Ray. It’s got to be a collective effort, and some guys are going to have to step up, and they’re going to get that opportunity and I know they’re looking forward to that opportunity; I would if I was one of those guys.
“You certainly don’t wish that upon your teammates. We love Ray and our guys really respect Ray. But at the same time, that leads to now some opportunities for other guys, and they’re going to have to step up.”
Groce told it like it is, and hopefully players such as talented sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn will indeed step up, along with disappointing veteran transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks. But for a 10-5 team that wasn’t looking much like an NCAA Tournament qualifier with Rice, it’s a longshot that the Illini will go dancing in March without him.
If Illinois does fall short of the NCAA Tournament again, it will be for the second time in three seasons under Groce, whose record in the Big Ten is a meager 15-23 entering Wednesday night’s contest. Thanks to a lackluster nonconference campaign and followed by another slow start in the league, concerns have begun percolating with many fans about Groce’s ability to outscheme top opposing coaches during the course of a game.
Considering that the Illini have squandered second-half leads in all five of their losses, those concerns have validity — although what’s somewhat ironic is that by losing Rice for an extended period, Groce will be under the microscope less because this season’s final outcome will be difficult to gauge.
Even before Rice’s injury, Groce already had lost the services of expected key contributors Tracy Abrams (ACL injury) and Darius Paul (substance-related arrest and transfer) before the season due to issues beyond his control. And now, following the fracturing of Rice’s hand, the already short-handed Illini must soldier on.
It’s their only option.