The bad luck just never ends for the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Earlier this week, when Illinois held its annual Media Day in anticipation of the upcoming season, head coach John Groce announced something that Illini fans are becoming conditioned to expect, more unfortunate injury news.
This time it was sophomore forward Leron Black. Groce announced that due to a knee injury, Black would have to undergo surgery and miss four to six weeks. It’s terrible news for a player looking to come into his own this season, but is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events for the Illini over this offseason.
Now, not only will Illinois have to deal with the injury of Black, but during the summer, the team also lost projected starting point guard Tracy Abrams for the duration of the 2015-16 season and highly touted incoming freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands for the majority of the offseason.
And that’s just the injuries.
Perhaps the most bizarre and unfortunate story for Illinois over the offseason was the dismissal of Darius Paul. He had never actually played a minute for the Illini, but was expected to be a depth option this season. He sat out the 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer rules and was suspended for the 2014-15 season due to off the court issues.
All told, it was a brutal offseason for the Illini. The team saw one player dismissed from the roster outright, a starter injured for the entire season, and two other expected contributors injured.
But how will these events impact Illinois this season?
Well, the injury to Abrams and the dismissal of Paul have received their fair share of ink. Without Abrams, the Illini will have to rely on an inconsistent Jaylon Tate and incoming transfer Khalid Lewis to carry the load at point guard. What might have been a position of strength will likely be a liability for most of next year. It was a very tough blow to the team’s chances this year.
Nobody is quite sure what the impact of Paul’s dismissal will have on the team. After all, he hadn’t actually played in a game for the Illini. It’s hard to gauge the impact of a player until the player actually sees the floor. Still, it should be a reduction in the team’s forward depth.
Nonetheless, it’s the injuries to Coleman-Lands and now Black that could really take what appears to be a talented Illinois team and derail the season. Before his injury, most expected Coleman-Lands to be in strong contention for a starting role on the team and though Black was not projected to be a starter, he was expected to be heavily used in the rotation.
(Stats via Sports Reference.)
From what Groce has stated, it seems like both players should be fully recovered before Illinois gets into conference play, but one has to wonder whether that will be too late.
Of course, no team can officially be eliminated from NCAA Tournament consideration before the conference tournaments take play. Every team has a chance to make the big dance if it performs well during early March. However, that doesn’t mean it’s realistic to expect a team to make the field without showing something in non-conference play.
Illinois doesn’t have an incredibly difficult non-conference slate, but there are still plenty of significant challenges. Games against Missouri, Notre Dame, Providence, Yale, and a potential matchup with Iowa State are among those challenges. Even with Black and Coleman-Lands at 100 percent, these would be difficult games. If these two don’t play or are limited, it could be an incredibly tough slate.
For some teams, this wouldn’t be a major concern. After all, a few losses in non-conference play can easily be overcome with a strong conference performance. For example, Michigan State was underwhelming in non-conference play last year and still made the Final Four.
Unfortunately, Illinois probably can’t afford to give away a few potential resume-building wins. The Illini have been an NCAA Tournament bubble team for the last few years and look to be in a similar position this season. Illinois desperately needs every win it can get and even losing a game against teams like Notre Dame or Providence could be massive blows to the team’s postseason goals.
Of course, how these offseason issues will work out for Illinois are still unknown. In fact, Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands may recover faster than anticipated and get the Illini on the right track. There is plenty of talent around these players that could make an impact this season.
However, if the absence of these two players ends up costing the team a few games in non-conference play, it could be a massive blow to a program trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament and perhaps take what was a budding season and send the team back to the NIT.
If so, it would just be the latest in a long story of bad news for the Illinois program.