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Illinois shorthanded without Black, likely Nichols versus Longwood

The Illini will still have the advantaged against an overmatched Lancers team.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Leron Black, while undersized, has always been a workhorse for his three-plus seasons in the Illinois program. When the Illini matched up with UNLV and 7-foot freshman big man Brandon McCoy, Black had one of his biggest challenges yet.

However, due to a hyperextension in his right elbow, Illinois’ redshirt-junior was limited to 12 minutes, two points and one rebound in the Illini’s 89-82 loss to the Runnin’ Rebels on Saturday night.

After halftime, Black came out and sat on the bench wearing a sling over his right arm.

Black has been ruled out for Wednesday night’s matchup with Longwood, the first game the Tennessee native will miss this season.

Unfortunately for the Illini, another forward may be out against the Lancers.

Redshirt-sophomore forward Kipper Nichols suffered an injury in practice Monday, according to Illinois head coach Brad Underwood.

Underwood did not have enough information at the press conference to rule him out.

Nichols is averaging 10.1 points and 5.8 rebounds off of the bench this season.

With Black and Nichols out, Illinois (7-4) will be forced to go small and young against Longwood (3-6).

“The freshmen just became juniors,” Underwood said. “Good for them.”

Illinois’ handful of freshmen will be counted upon to lead the Illini, losers of four out of their past five games, to victory.

Illinois’ freshmen scored 43 points against UNLV on Saturday, a performance that Underwood wants to see replicated against Farmville, Virginia’s Longwood University.

Mark Smith — one of Illinois’ leading scorers and playmakers over the first five games of the season and had struggled since — finally regained his shooting touch and led the Illini with 17 points, including 4-of-5 from three-point range.

Underwood continued to reassure everyone that he is not concerned about Smith’s inconsistency.

“Mark needs to get a lot of shots up,” Underwood said. “He's not going to take 4-5 days off, walk in the gym, and start making them. He made 18 in a row from the three-point line the other day — that's really good.”

Smith’s freshman backcourt mate Trent Frazier set a career-high with 16 points in the Sin City. Freshman Da’Monte Williams added eight points.

As the freshmen seem to be turning the corner over the final stretch of non-conference play, Illinois continues to have issues with foul trouble.

Illinois tied a program-record by committing 36 fouls versus UNLV.

While some of those could be attributed to tight officiating, many of the fouls are still undisciplined and far away from the basket.

“There's no defending anything when you're just slapping and hacking,” Underwood said. “We've got to get those things cleaned up.”

Mark Alstork and Smith both fouled out Saturday night. Five other Illini had four personal fouls, and two players finished with three.

Black was the only Illini who did not commit a foul.

If Illinois’ freshmen can score the ball and the Illini can cut down on their fouls, Underwood’s squad should be in good shape to win its only home game over a 23-day span.

Longwood, of the Big South Conference, has yet to beat a Division I opponent this season. The Lancers’ three wins come against Division II or III teams.

Jayson Gee’s team is coming off a loss to the Virginia Military Institute, 81-70, on Dec. 9. Senior guard B.K. Ashe scored 21 points and grabbed five rebounds over 38 minutes for the Lancers.

Longwood is averaging 68.1 points this season, good for 298th in the country. Junior guard Isaiah Walton is pacing his team with 18.9 points per game.

Illinois and Longwood tip-off at the State Farm Center at 7 p.m. CT Wednesday. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.