Illinois’ basketball team sustained a serious blow Monday when senior and leading scorer Rayvonte Rice broke a bone in his left, non-shooting hand toward the end of a team practice. Coach John Groce revealed the injury Tuesday and said Rice will undergo a Wednesday surgery and be out indefinitely.
“He’s not real thrilled about it. He wants to play. It’s his senior year,” Groce said. “You don’t like to be dealt those cards, but sometimes we get dealt cards in life.”
Rice, the Big Ten’s sixth-leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, also is Illinois’ top rebounder and best defender. The Illini — a disappointing 10-5 on the season — are one of three Big Ten teams off to an 0-2 start in conference play. There’s never a good time for a team to lose its top player, but this is extra-tough.
“Ray’s a monster pm offense, Ray’s a monster on defense, Ray’s a monster rebounding. He’s one of the best players in the country,” Groce said.
Illinois hosts No. 11 Maryland on Wednesday. Beating the 14-1 Terrapins with Rice would’ve been difficult. Without Rice for an indeterminate amount of time — some are speculating up to six weeks — the Illini will struggle possession-by-possession to score and be hard-pressed to win each game. That was the case a season ago, when Groce’s team had Rice and Tracy Abrams healthy. Now, two starting guards and senior leaders have been sidelined by injury; Abrams, who tore an ACL in training camp, will miss the entire season.
Groce, in his third season, is staring at a second straight non-NCAA Tournament campaign, not that he’s the one saying that. His message to the media Tuesday: no excuses.
“They play five players, we play five players,” he said. “That’s enough for me. Next man up. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Sophomore starters Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn will be looked to for increased productivity on offense and, Groce hopes, more consistency on defense. For a season and a half now, each player’s defense has come and gone. The Illini rank ninth in the conference in field-goal percentage defense (.400) and allowed Ohio State to shoot 60 percent from the floor in Staurday’s defeat in Columbus.
Freshman power forward Leron Black, a former four-star recruit and Tennessee state player of the year, also has an instant opportunity to shoulder a larger load.
“We’ve got to play as a team, we’ve got to defend better, we’ve got to take care of the ball better, with or without Ray,” Groce said. “Some guys have got to figure it out. They’ve got to connect the dots a little better.”