It's been an interesting offseason in Champaign, that's for sure. The John Groce era at Illinois hasn't been all bad, with the coach getting the Illini to the postseason in his first season and being ranked at one point in all three of his seasons, but missing out on back-to-back NCAA Tournaments left a bit of a sour taste, especially with last year's season ending NIT beatdown against Alabama. Considering the combination of a challenging Big Ten and a team that was set to lose a laundry list of contributors (including key players like Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu) and expectations were a bit lesser heading into 2015-16.
Then things became even more problematic for the Illini. First was the news that point guard Tracy Abrams would miss the entire season (again), forcing Illinois to scramble and bring in senior transfer Khalid Lewis to add some much needed experience at the position. Then after being arrested overseas on the teams exhibition trip, forward Darius Paul was dismissed from the program, a legitimate blow to the teams depth inside (especially as they need to replace Egwu down low). Of course there was also the stress fracture suffered by freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, the team's top recruit in 2015.
So how could things get any worse for the Illini? How about another key player suffering an offseason injury? Leron Black, a sophomore forward that averaged 5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game off the bench last season, will be a vital player in Groce's rotation and is expected to see his role grow by a considerable amount this season. Unfortunately for Black, though, he ended up suffering a meniscus tear in his right knee and will be sidelined for the next four to six weeks due to knee surgery. The good news is that part of that time frame would see him come back before the season begins, though he could miss the opening of the season if things progress on the slower side of things.
Of course knee injuries can become lingering problems as well and now Illinois has to hope that Black's meniscus tear will recover quickly and not rear it's ugly head during the season. Even if the injury heals fully in about a month, it means Black will be missing valuable practice time as the Illini just tipped off practice last week. And while not as severe or notable of an issue, even guard Jaylon Tate has been dealing with a concussion. For a team dealing with quite a bit of roster turnover and inexperience, for numerous players to continuously be dealing with injury related issues could become problematic, especially if it carries over to the regular season as it'd wreck havoc on a team with some depth issues.
However, not everything is bad news for the Illini as Groce had some good news yesterday:
#Illini Groce: As of today, Jalen Coleman-Lands is on track to play in the first game.— Derek Piper (@DPiperScout) October 8, 2015
The return of Coleman-Lands is a huge necessity for the Illini and the fact that he went from being sidelined indefinitely (with a seemingly slow recovery process) to being on pace to start the season healthy is great news for Illinois. In conference play last season Illinois was 13th in field goal percentage and 10th in scoring, with their inability to field a consistent offense being a key reason why they struggled down the stretch and missed the NCAA Tournament. With the team losing their most prominent scorer (Rice), Illinois has some holes to fill and needs to improve on the offensive side of the ball if they want to make it back to the big dance this season. Coleman-Lands, the teams top recruit this season, also happens to be a lights out perimeter shooter that could be the spark the Illini need to get over the hump offensively, so his return is going to be critical for Illinois.
So while the news that another key contributor for the Illini had to have offseason surgery was definitely more bad news for Illinois fans yesterday, at least the fan base had some good news about freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands. With guys like Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn still around, if the team can piece together it's point guard position and avoid an abundance of injuries in the winter, there is enough talent to compete in the Big Ten this season. Of course everything that has transpired this offseason, mixed with a difficult Big Ten, leaves little room for error if Groce wants to go dancing again this March after a two year absence.