The 2015-16 regular season in college basketball isn't even a week old yet, but John Groce's team is already in a March Madness state of mind -- and not in a good way. The phrase "survive and advance" is usually one reserved for the 68-team tournament that takes place in the early Spring, but in Illinois' case, it is one that's being implemented on a daily basis as we head towards Thanksgiving.
The Illini suffered their first November loss in nearly five years last Friday night against the North Florida Ospreys. While UNF was an NCAA tournament team last season and featured some potential NBA prospects, it's still inexcusable to lose the first home game of the year to a mid-major. But if any team in the nation deserved to be using excuses right now, it would be Illinois.
The orange and blue have five injured players -- out of thirteen total players on the team. Here's a sad chart that illustrates just how banged up Groce's squad currently is:
|Kendrick Nunn||thumb injury, out 8 weeks|
|Jaylon Tate||finger injury, return TBD|
|Leron Black||surgery recovery, day-to-day|
|Jalen Coleman-Lands||foot injury, day-to-day|
|Tracy Abrams||torn ACL, out for year|
|Darius Paul||dismissed from the team|
Of course Paul's situation was different; he just added insult to that list of injuries. Nevertheless this means about 40 percent of the active men's basketball players are currently injured or no longer with the team. Of the remaining 60 percent, half of them are freshmen. That is an incredibly young and banged up group of basketball players, and probably one of the most injury-ravaged programs in all of college hoops.
As the hits keep on coming, the Illini are being forced into survival mode before playing the third game of the non-conference schedule. At this point John Groce is just trying to find five healthy players to throw out on the court. Four of the five starters from the first two games of the year had never played in an Illinois uniform until this season tipped off. That's a startling thing to consider, and the lack of cohesion amongst teammates has been obvious. Even though Illinois was able to come back from multiple double-digit deficits to defeat North Dakota State, the team nearly fell to 0-2 to start the year, something that hadn't been done in Champaign since the early 1920's. And it doesn't get any easier from here.
Now they face a quality Providence team on the road that features potential Wooden Award winner Kris Dunn. The Friars took it to Harvard in their first game of the year and will look to carve up an Illini defense that currently ranks 230th in the country. Then it's back to the Springfield for a game against the Chattanooga Mocs, who just went into Athens and defeated Georgia. The Mocs rank 31st in points per game this season. Two games later the orange and blue will be in Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic against a quality UAB team that won an NCAA tournament game last year and then, if they beat the Blazers, they will potentially face off against No. 7 Iowa State. Then it's back in the State Farm Center for a matchup against 18th-ranked Notre Dame. Let's review that schedule, shall we?
|North Florida||2014 NCAA tournament team|
|North Dakota St||2014 NCAA tournament team|
|Providence||2014 NCAA tournament team, Kris Dunn|
|Chattanooga||projected to win Southern conference, beat Georgia|
|UAB||2014 NCAA tournament team|
|Iowa State||2014 NCAA tournament team, ranked 7th in country|
|Notre Dame||2014 NCAA tournament team, ranked 18th in country|
That's seven out of Illinois' first eight opponents that are potential NCAA tournament teams. The good news is that if you win the majority of those games, they are RPI-boosting wins. The bad news for the Illini? They're just trying to get five healthy, breathing humans on the court at the same time. Usually "survive and advance" is only a phrase head coaches use come March. But for John Groce, every game will be considered a victory as long as his team makes it out of the arena in one piece.