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February 9, 2014

Higher dose of freshmen ends Illini infirmity

Illinois coach John Groce used the same prescription despite receiving the same sick results during the Illini's 35-day, eight-game slide.

Illinois kept a majority of the games close but couldn't actually overcome its infirmity with a win as Groce trotted out the same starting lineup, and more importantly, the same closing rotation. Illini fans had been calling for alternative treatment for weeks.

Groce didn't hit the breaking point until Friday, when his staff decided on a higher dosage of talented freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill over struggling veterans Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey. It was just what the social-media doctors ordered.

A different mix led to a different result as the five freshmen accounted for 38 points and 15 of the Illini's 33 rebounds in a 60-55 road win (its first Big Ten road win of the season) at Penn State (12-12, 3-8 Big Ten) on Sunday.

"I thought it might give us more of a blend," Groce said of his first starting lineup change of the season.

The future of Illinois (14-10, 3-8) was on display late Sunday afternoon, and it looked bright - well, at least brighter than the downright depressing recent past - as Nunn and Hill proved their playmaking potential. Nunn had a career-high 19 points, hitting a career-high three three-pointers, in a career-high 31 minutes. Hill had a career-high 11 points in a career-high 23 minutes.

So the question then is why didn't Groce make a change earlier?

While Illini fans were ready for change three games into the eight-game losing streak, coaches generally are a little more resistant to change. As most coaches tend to do, Groce trusted his seniors more - especially on defense. But the same five veterans continued to not score and not defend in winning time. Groce also realized his freshmen were playing well enough recently to deal with the typical freshmen miscues.

On a team that needs more rebounders and more scorers, Hill needed more playing time. No one on the team has as dangerous of a midrange game - and potentially as dynamic of an offensive game - as the 6-foot-6 matchup nightmare. He also entered Sunday's game leading the team in defensive rebounding percentage (18.3). If he keeps his focus - which has been a problem at times this season - Groce will have a hard time playing him fewer than 20 minutes per game.

Nunn simply solidified himself as one of the team's top-five players during the past month. He already was one of the team's toughest players and on-ball defenders. But the Chicago Simeon product has gradually translated his gamer, aggressive style of play to the college game. He forces less on offense and has accepted a role as a defensive stopper. His style of play already has made him a fan favorite. If his progression continues, Nunn has the potential - I repeat, the potential - to become the face of the program. For the rest of this season, Nunn should be on the floor for 28 or more minutes per game.

"It's a great lesson because this is a kid who maybe didn't understand our defense the first ten games of the year and wanted to play more and went out of his way to learn our defense and study it and work at it in practice and be coachable," Groce said. "Now that he's starting to defend better, you add in his offensive ability, his play-making ability there and then obviously he's a tough kid mentally. You can never have enough toughness. He's really started to put it together."

The freshmen contributions went deeper than the two potential future stars. Maverick Morgan earned double-digit minutes for just the third time in Big Ten play and had four points and three rebounds. Even Austin Colbert contributed. The lanky 6-foot-9 freshman had played just three minutes in the previous seven games (six DNPs) but scored four points in 11 minutes on Sunday. Groce also said that the two freshmen post players showed improved defense.

"The play of the freshmen was terrific, maybe as good as they've played collectively in a game as a group," Groce said. "Then our veterans were very mature, very mature."

That's what will get lost in this win. The freshmen undoubtedly are the story of the day and the rest of the season. But the Illini need their veterans to improve if they are to beat Big Ten teams not named Penn State.

In his first game off the bench this season, Bertrand was a nonfactor, going scoreless for the first time this season. But Jon Ekey relished his role off the bench, adding nine points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Tracy Abrams went 39 minutes and 48 seconds without scoring but made two free throws to extend the lead to 59-55 with 12.2 left. He also had five assists to two turnovers. Rayvonte Rice scored all nine of his points in the second half despite a Penn State defense set on forcing the ball out of his hands.

Egwu played just the first 3:13 of the first half due to two quick fouls. He earned his third foul with 15:50 left in the game. He returned to the game at the 10:58 left with the Illini struggling to stop Penn State from attacking the rim. Egwu blocked two of his four shots the rest of the game and was a huge part of the Illini hold Penn State to just one field goal and three total points over the final 9:44.

"It's hard sometimes when you sit a whole half to get into any type of rhythm," Groce said. "In the second half, it didn't look like that bothered him at all. He showed great maturity. …When he's out there, we're pretty daggone good defensively."

Groce now realizes the Illini's most potent lineup now consists of Abrams, Rice, Nunn, Hill and Egwu with a high dose of Ekey and low doses of the other three freshmen. As for Bertrand, he has to find his own tonic. With a winnable stretch - at Nebraska, home against Ohio State, at Minnesota and home against Nebraska - the Illini could use an efficient scorer and potentially potent rebounder, if he's aggressive.

But for at least one day, and the first time in 35 days, Groce found the right remedy. It just happened to be the one fans had been prescribing for weeks: more freshmen.

"Those guys have earned it, and that's the deal," Groce said. "Players play players. Of course, I'd love to play ten every night double digits but that's not up to me. That's up to the players earning that right and performing. Tonight, they performed and we needed every single one of them to perform that way to dig out a hard-fought road win."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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