Considering Illinois lost starting point guard Tracy Abrams prior to the season and then lost star Rayvonte Rice along with Aaron Cosby to injuries (and later to suspensions), the fact that the Illini are 17-8 and 7-5 in conference play just goes to show you the intestinal fortitude Illinois has this season. Illinois has now won four games in a row and are streaking at the most opportune time.
The Illini are most recently coming off a gutsy 64-52 overtime win over Michigan on Thursday. After trailing late in the game, Illinois went a nice run to send the game into overtime. The Illini then absolutely owned overtime, outscoring the Wolverines 14-2.
Now that the Illini have Rice back (he played 27 minutes and scored just four points in his first game back against Michigan), they are looking to make up for lost time and make a run down the stretch. Rice had missed the last nine games and his presence was missed (although you wouldn’t know it by the fact that Illinois went 6-3 without him). But after getting him back Thursday, Illinois is now 7-3 in their last ten games.
In case you forgot, Rice was leading the Illini in scoring (16.4 ppg), rebounding (6.8 rpg), steals (1.9 spg) and three-point field-goal percentage (.475). Those are some key numbers— not to mention senior leadership—that the Illini missed while he was out. I’m sure the selection committee will weigh his absence when perusing Illinois’ resume come March.
With a fine overall record, winning conference record and a rapidly improving RPI (54, according to KenPom.com), Illinois is quickly making their case for inclusion into the NCAA Tournament.
Already on the year, the Illini own impressive wins over Baylor, Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State. In all, Illinois has two top-25 wins, one top-50 win and an additional three top-100 wins. With the way they are finishing combined with impressive wins they possess, they should definitely have the attention of the selection committee.
In the absence of Rice and Cosby, the Illini have been getting great seasons from a couple of emerging sophomores in Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn.
Hill in particular has been wonderful of late and was named Big Ten co-player of the Week two weeks ago. He is now averaging 14.6 points per game on an impressive .468 shooting from the field while shooting a solid .405 from three-point range. Hill also contributes 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
Nunn, meanwhile, is a crafty lefty who can get hot at a moment’s notice. He is the third Illini averaging double-figures in scoring, adding 11.8 points per game while shooting a sizzling .426 shooting from three-point range. Nunn also shoots a fantastic .840 from the free-throw line and chips in 3.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.
With all the injuries, suspensions and early Big Ten struggles, you have to commend the job coach John Groce has done keeping this team together. The benefit has been his team playing its best basketball at the perfect time.
The Illini have six conference games left, and some tough matchups still await in the form of Wisconsin (this Sunday), rematches with Michigan State and Purdue, and a game at Iowa. It won’t be easy for the Illini, but given where they once were, they have done a great job of turning lemons into lemonade this season.
That said, Illinois is taking the necessary steps at the right time for a team trending in the right direction as we’re about to hit March.