The Illinois men's basketball team has been plagued with injuries this season. Coming in, John Groce's squad was already without its senior starting point guard, Tracy Abrams, due to a preseason ACL tear. Just getting into the start of Big Ten play, the Illini seemed to have lost its third leg in Rayvonte Rice's hand injury. Most recently, first year transfer, Aaron Cosby, sat out two games with an eye injury during a hard fought game against Indiana. The injuries have taken a huge hit to Illinois' roster this season.
Illinois has been hit with such a shallow bench that in the week before the Illini went on the road to Minnesota, team manager, Ryan Schmidt, was promoted to a roster spot. Granted, Schmidt will only play should the Illini get into foul trouble, control a major deficit, or with their luck, injure anymore players, but the fact that Schmidt is considered an option tells a lot about this team. Let's take a look at some of the injuries this season for the Illini.
Going into the 2014-2015 season, Illinois basketball gained fairly high expectations in a mostly unpredictable Big Ten conference. However, this was before they lost a vital part of the rotation. With Abram's preseason ACL tear, the Illini lost its third-year starting point guard, team assist leader, and second-leading team scorer. Aside from the scorebook, the Illini would need to find a way to fulfill the leadership and experience that he brought to a team of youngsters. Many expected seniors Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice to fulfill these needs. Unfortunately for the Illini, Egwu has not shown many signs of stepping up, in addition to the temporary loss of Rice. Abrams is redshirting the 2014-2015 season and will be eligible for his final season next fall.
As a second year transfer out of Drake, Rice was the rock of Illinois basketball to start the season. After the Abrams injury, many people looked to Rice to step up and take control over his young team. In the annual "Bragging Rights" game against the Missouri Tigers in mid-December, Rice hit a buzzer-beater to give the Illini a 62-59 win over the Tigers. After a loss to Ohio State on Jan. 3, Groce criticized his team's toughness, commenting on its inability to close out games. Rice was the Illini's major source of hustle on both ends of the court, so when he broke his left hand in practice days later, it was a major hit on the Illini. Immediately following the loss of its leading scorer, sophomore Malcolm Hill did show signs of taking the team under his control with a career-high 28 points in a win over Maryland. However, Illinois has struggled on the road in tough losses to Nebraska and Minnesota since then.
The first year transfer out of Seton Hall showed promising signs in the beginning of the season with his ability to knock down shots from behind the arc. However, Cosby's inconsistency has given his starting position to sophomore Kendrick Nunn. Cosby injured his eye defending Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell's attempt at a layup in the Illini's first home loss on Jan 18.
Both Rice and Cosby have been discussed to return for Saturday's matchup with Penn State. Penn State is coming off a close win over Minnesota this week; however, they have yet to win a conference game on the road. Should they play, Rice and Cosby's performances will be telling on how ready they are to get back into Big Ten play and if the Illini can use this as a jumpstart to the remainder of the season.