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Early Injuries Could Conjure New Look Illini

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing

NCAA Basketball: Southern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illini forward Leron Black tried to tough out a hyper-extended elbow last Saturday against UNLV, the same elbow that had kept him out of preseason practice following surgery. After the injury, Black returned to the court multiple times with essentially no use of his left arm. So while Black is a game-time decision tonight against New Mexico State, one can’t help but wonder how effective he can be. Bruising larger players to open up five-ten foot hooks, fadaways and the like is Black’s MO. Even if it weren’t, a functional left arm is a prerequisite for all basketball players. After an Illini career full of promise and progress but dogged by injuries, here’s hoping Leron Black can get over his latest setback.

Not long after Black’s setback, Kipper Nichols injured his foot in practice and is also a game-time decision tonight against New Mexico State. Without his 6-foot-6 frame the Illini become one of, if not the, smallest teams in the country.

For coach Brad Underwood, going small has worked before. As he reminded the media this week, and as Illini diehards who sweated over this scenario in the offseason were already aware, Underwood’s best Stephen F. Austin team didn’t start a player over 6-foot-4. As I predicted in this space last month, Aaron Jordan’s emergence would allow Illinois to work in some smallball lineups. Underwood has a bevy of talented guards at his disposal, and we’re starting to see him use four on the floor at once. Though young, these guards have size and composure well beyond their years. Da’Monte Williams in particular epitomizes the ideal Underwood player; he led the team in minutes off the bench against UNLV.

Williams has been a model of consistency, if not brilliance, as a freshman. Trent Frazier, by comparison, has brought a level of energy to the point guard position that Illinois hasn’t had in years. Before he reached campus, Frazier began to draw comparisons to some Illini greats for his social media swagger. While that remains, on the court Frazier lets his game do the talking. To me it says: I don’t want to be the next Dee Brown. I want to be the first Trent Frazier. I’ll qualify that: While Brown played nearly every minute of every game for four years, Frazier has yet to make a start. He’s also yet to find his range from deep, connecting on just 21% of three-pointers largely as a result of poor shot selection. While he has improved in the last two-weeks, Frazier has a lot to prove against tougher competition. It’s a promising start nonetheless.

Tonight’s matchup with NMSU was telling. The Illini failed a key test at UNLV last Saturday and it’s hard to see a road to the tournament, especially after a costly loss to New Mexico State. A win wouldn’t have gotten anybody outside the program riled up, but learning how to win without size would be valuable experience for an adjusting team. After running Longwood out of the gym, there are no gimmes left. The Illini need wins and conforming to the mold of past success, even if it is forced on by injury, may be the best way to get them.