The roster for the game against Purdue on Wednesday night was much different than the one most Illini fans would have expected last spring. This team is now missing four players all of which were at one time or could have eventually been starters. Darius Paul left earlier this year after an incident in which he ran from police and was arrested. He will be back next year but Illinois could have really used his a hard nosed presence in the paint, especially in their previous loses at home against Indiana and on the road at Nebraska. Maybe the biggest hit of the season happened just a few weeks into practice. Tracy Abrams tore his ACL and although he might not be the best point guard in the country, he is a leader, and this team just doesn't have another player to fill his shoes. The next big hit occurred when Ray Rice slipped at practice during a routine drill and broke a bone in his left hand. And now 6 games into a very disappointing Big Ten campaign, Aaron Cosby will be out 1-2 weeks with a torn retina in his left eye. Is there really such a thing as snake bitten? If so this team is it.
Last night Illinois had to find yet another way to play without a much needed player. Aaron Cosby has had a couple big games on the offensive end, but the area that is presence would be missed the most, would be on defense. Over the last month, especially in Big Ten play, Cosby continued to find ways to contribute even when his shot wasn't falling. He averaged almost 5 rebounds per game over the last four Big Ten games and was one Illinois best on ball defenders. Coach Groce decided to start Leron Black in place of Cosby and he responded with 15 points and 13 rebounds. In the end Illinois found a way to out rebound one of the best rebounding teams in the Big Ten, and got a very hard earned win at home. Let's take a look at what has been working for Illinois and what needs to improve if they want to have any hope of making the NCAA tournament.
What has worked:
Kendrick Nunn has been great since Rice got hurt. He was doing great before, but in the last couple games, he has seemed to find another gear. He has been shooting lights out from behind the arc and has shown a knack for getting into the lane for easy jump shots. His passing has also reached new levels. Nunn finds open teammates with ease and often draws in defenses which helps creates open spaces for other players to receive the ball for open shots. He is averaging 18.75 points over the last four games which is up more than 10 points per game from before Rice's injury. He is also averaging 5 rebounds 2 assists and 1 steel over those 4 games as well.
Aaron Cosby had two really good games immediately following Rice's injury. He scored 7 points in a loss to Nebraska but chipped in 7 rebounds and 2 assists. Against Northwestern he finally broke out of his shooting slump and rent off for 19 points 5 rebounds 2 assists and 1 steel. As I spoke about above, Cosby became one of the Illinois' go to defenders before and eye injury against Indiana. Hopefully when he comes back from that injury, he will continue playing great defense, but return to his shooting numbers against Northwestern.
Leron Black had his coming out party, achieving his first career double-double in route to helping Illinois defeat Purdue. Over the last two games against Purdue and Indiana, he has averaged 11.5 points and 11 rebounds. Every team in the country would love to have those kinds of numbers from a freshman. The best thing for Illinois, is those numbers are coming from a freshman who plays at one of Illinois weakest spots on the floor. Without Black Illinois doesn't really have anyone that is a go to rebounder. Someone who you can count on to secure a rebound when the game is down to one or two possessions late. Black showed that he can hang with Purdue's big men and more then hold his own. Late in the game he brought down every rebound that came anywhere near him.
What hasn't worked:
Nnanna Egwu has been terrible in every game except Purdue in the aftermath Rice's injury. In those first three games he averaged 2.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. Against Indian he was so bad that you can basically throw away his 27 minutes. In that game he had 0 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, 0 blocks and 5 fouls. If Illinois had got any output at all out of him in that game, they would have won. Against Purdue he had 11 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocked shots (he now holds the all-time record for blocked shots at Illinois). Hopefully Egwu can create some momentum from his performance against Purdue, and help Illinois have a larger presence in the paint.
Ahmad Starks shooting numbers have been terrible this season. The only game recently that he shot well was against Indiana; 50% from FG 100% from FT and 62.5% rom 3PT. The other three games since Rice's injury, he has shot 20% from FG and 7% from 3PT. In those three games he missed a total of 36 shots. Many of those shots were taken at the beginning of the shot clock when no one was in position for a rebound. Even though only 1 turnover was attributed to Starks during those three games you can count many of those shots at turnovers because Illinois had no chance for rebounds or to run enough offense to really get Starks an open shot. For Illinois to have any change of making the tournament, Starks has play more like he did against Indiana and less like he has the rest of the season.