It's a fear many Illinois fans have harbored since the prospects of the season brightened during the first two months: what if one of the starting five suffers an injury?
As the tenuousness of the bench revealed itself over the first half of the season, it had been weighing on my mind. This team is especially dependent on its starters with a bench composed only of freshmen. About 80 percent of the scoring production comes from the starters, and the stingy defense that has become a hallmark of the team noticeably breaks down with the presence of a freshman in the lineup (Wisconsin had a field day when the freshmen were on the court).
(Sidenote: I'm actually in awe of how healthy Illinois basketball as a program has been in recent memory. The only significant one I can remember is Chester Frazier's broken hand prior to 2009's NCAA Tournament. Prior to that, Dee Brown's offseason foot injury kept him around for his senior year but affected neither the 2005 nor the 2006 season. Luther Head was a bit hobbled by a groin strain in the last few games of the 2005 Tournament run. Deron Williams broke his jaw, which was a whole decade ago! That's such a miniscule amount of injuries over a decade's worth of games. If I'm missing any, help me out in the comments.)
All of the starters have their intrinsic value: Egwu's stellar defense, Ekey's 3-point shooting and rebounding, Bertrand's efficient scoring, Abrams's headiness. And yet, Rayvonte Rice represents a bigger slice of the pie than all of them.
His 45 percent shooting clip on the volume of shots he takes makes him one of the most potent scorers in the conference. And his utility as a scorer is invaluable, too. He's hit the big shots (UNLV), but he's also racked up points in bunches at the beginning of halves or when Illinois needs a bucket to end a scoring drought. Life without Rice would have been an offensive hell. Not to mention, for all that energy he exerts on offense, he's one of Illinois's best on-ball defenders and rebounders.
As of Wednesday morning, Rice is a game-time decision to play. If he can't go, Kendrick Nunn will likely take his starting role and the whole team will have to pick up the slack. The offensive output would seem to fall to Abrams, but Rice's absence might alter that assumption. Tracy's effectiveness is largely contingent on the attention the defense pays to Rice, which opens lanes to the basket. If Rice is out, Purdue's best defender (one of the Johnson Brothers) will instead take Tracy. I'd look toward Bertrand to shore up much of the scoring.
On defense, Purdue gives us the option to play tons of zone. Now, Illinois hasn't been a great zone defense this season, but that's more a casualty of the excellence of its man-to-man defense. When Purdue's 7-foot center A.J. Hammons is on the court, Purdue likes to spread the other four players around the perimeter to allow space for Hammons to post-up and go to work. In its last game against Nebraska, Purdue struggled mightily when the Huskers went to a zone, turning the ball over on lazy passes on the perimeter and struggling to feed Hammons in the post. A zone will plant some traffic in the lane to prevent dribble drives from lightning quick point guard Ronnie Johnson.
I was critical of Illinois head coach John Groce for his stubbornness against Northwestern on Sunday, and I'd like to see him use some zone Wednesday night, especially if Illinois is shorthanded.
As far as Purdue's personnel is concerned, Ronnie Johnson and Terone Johnson account for much of the Boilermaker's offensive production. Ronnie rarely shoots the 3-pointer because he makes his living blowing by defenders. For the amount of time he gets to the lane with help defenders draped all over him, he should probably be passing more often to Boilermakers chilling on the perimeter. But he's a capable finisher in traffic shooting at a 42 percent clip.
And then there's Hammons. Illinois fans probably don't know what the fuss about him is about after his no-show in Champaign last year, but he's been near dominant in two out of Purdue's three conference games. His post moves are more polished and his rebounding rate is on par with previous formidable Big Ten rebounding machines like Jared Sullinger and Trevor Mbakwe.
But the flaws in Hammons's game are a microcosm of Purdue's flaws as a whole. Hammons coughs the ball up in the post with the slightest pressure and he's a horrific passer out of the post. Purdue gets into turnover trouble attempting to force it down to the big guy, too. Hammons finds it hard to stay on the floor for long stretches of the game because his lack of coordination and slow feet make him foul prone. Though he has a significant blocks per game, it's almost a better strategy to attack him at the rim with the likely odds of him fouling. As I said before, he's a load but far from perfect.
For my money, Rayvonte will play tonight. How close he is to 100 percent is more of my question. If he goes, I expect to see some zone and lots of traps in the post during man-to-man. Purdue's a turnover machine, and Groce would be wise to exploit that sooner rather than down-seven-to-Northwestern-later.