CHAMPAIGN — Less than two minutes into Sunday’s game here against Indiana, Aaron Cosby felt a hand rake across his face. The Illinois guard didn’t know it at the time, but he’d sustained a torn retina in his left eye. No wonder he shot 0-for-5 from the three-point line in the Illini’s hard-fought 80-74 defeat.
Cosby was out of the lineup for Wednesday’s matchup with Purdue, the latest Illinois player to hit the deck with an injury in a season marked by forced lineup changes and other seemingly nonstop adjustments. Tracy Abrams is out for the season after tearing an ACL, and fellow senior guard Rayvonte Rice still has weeks of recovery to go after breaking his left hand. Now Cosby, a junior averaging 7.8 points per game, will be sidelined for up to two weeks.
Add the temporary absence of big man Darius Paul to the pile — once expected to be a major contributor on the interior this season, Paul was suspended from the program and won’t play until 2015-16 — and John Groce’s third season at Illinois looks nothing like how he’d imagined it. To be sure, the deck is stacked against the Illini as they try to stay in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth.
“There’s a lot of things happening that make things very, very fluid,” Groce said. “The one thing we’ve tried to do, certainly, when you’re in those situations where you get dealt cards is [to] play those cards. Don’t panic, stay poised, do what we do and follow the blueprint. … That’s part of life and part of ball.”
A roster at full strength might’ve yielded a small-ball starting lineup of Abrams, Rice, sophomore shooting guard Kendrick Nunn, sophomore swingman Malcolm Hill and senior center Nnanna Egwu, with Paul, Cosby, Ahmad Starks, Leron Black and Jaylon Tate giving the Illini one of the strongest benches in the Big Ten. Of course, that’s merely one way the rotation could’ve gone. As it is, Cosby and Starks have struggled with large roles, and Black and Tate — and sophomore Maverick Morgan — are being fast-tracked, relatively speaking.
Tate, a former standout at Simeon and the team’s only natural point guard, has hung in there despite lacking physical strength and touch on his outside shot. Black, a freshman power forward, is improving as he figures out how to hold his own at the defensive end and take care of the ball. Some of the others have been up-and-down, at best.
“Of course we’re playing lineups that are different from what we played prior,” Groce said, “but we’re not going to use that as an excuse. … We don’t have that luxury right now.”
The rest of us, meanwhile, can sneak a peak at next season, when — if healthy — the Illini will be as deep as any team in the conference and, it would seem, ready to take a significant step forward. Groce has his most highly touted recruiting class, including Simeon swingman D.J. Williams and Indianapolis combo guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, coming in.
“The core of what we do and how we do things has not changed. Our standards have not changed,” Groce said. “We believe in where we’re going. Sometimes you have to take maybe a fork in the road and then get back on at another intersection, so to speak. That’s what we’re doing. Our eyes are on the prize, and that’s not changing.”