You think it’s difficult to be an Illinois basketball fan these days? To swallow a sub-.500 season that, barring a miracle in the Big Ten tournament, will make it three straight years on the outside looking in at March Madness? To root for a team that seems, with each passing week, to slip further from national relevance?
Sure, it’s tough. But one can only imagine how much tougher the whole thing is for Illini juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn.
Hill, a 6-6 wing from Belleville, Ill., ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.2 points per game. Right behind him, tied for sixth at 16.4, is 6-3 shooting guard Nunn, a former Simeon star. They also lead the injury-depleted Illini in rebounds grabbed, minutes logged, responsibility shouldered and bitter pills swallowed.
Without the two most successful recruits in John Groce’s disappointing four years at Illinois, where would this team be? Probably trading sob stories with Rutgers in the league basement.
As it is, the Illini are only 5-11 in Big Ten play and 13-16 overall. Their chances of reaching even a lower-tier postseason tournament are close to nonexistent.
“It has been a test,” Nunn said. “Yeah, it has tested me big-time.”
And how could it not have been that? Try to put yourself in Nunn’s shoes for a moment.
He didn’t merely taste success at Simeon — he was a four-time state champion.
He wasn’t just a sidekick to all-time great Jabari Parker — Nunn’s No. 20 jersey was retired on the same day Simeon retired Parker’s No. 22.
Nunn used to sit in class at Simeon or lie in bed at home and daydream about playing in the NCAA Tournament. Three years later, that’s all it is — a daydream.
“[Playing in] those types of games is my nature, too,” he said. “I just want to get to that point.”
The good news for Illini fans is that Nunn and Hill aren’t finished trying; both confirmed to the Sun-Times on Tuesday that they’ll be back, as expected, for their senior seasons. And both emphasized that they have no regrets about their decisions to attend Illinois and hitch their wagons to Groce, whose status for next season remains a subject of speculation.
“I love this coaching staff,” Hill said. “We don’t need more negativity around here. We already have enough of it from the outside.”
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Groce will be back. And that point guard Tracy Abrams, coming off two major injuries, will stay healthy. And that indefinitely suspended forward Leron Black will be welcomed back, the program’s promising freshmen will progress, and so on. In others, let’s assume the best-case scenario.
If all that happens, here’s where Nunn stands on what the 2016-17 season — his final ride — could bring:
“Man, with the guys we have, if everyone’s healthy and things are going our way, I think we can make a run at the Final Four,” he said. “That’s my opinion.”
At least he’s still dreaming. Given the current state of things at Illinois, that’s not such a bad thing at all.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Ohio State at No. 2 Michigan State (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN): Buckeyes fans don’t want to hear it, but bracketologists are saying this team — despite its 11-6 Big Ten record and non-league victory over Kentucky — still is a far cry from having secured an NCAA bid. A win in East Lansing sure would help the résumé. Meanwhile, it’ll be a special atmosphere for Spartans’ star Denzel Valentine’s final home game.
No. 21 Iowa State at No. 1 Kansas (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN): The Jayhawks go for an 11th straight victory to end the regular season, which seemingly would lock up the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance regardless of what happens in the Big 12 tournament. Beware, though: Their last loss came against the Cyclones, an 85-72 decision in Ames in late January.
No. 8 North Carolina at No. 17 Duke (Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN): Does anyone ever require an explanation to recognize this as a big game? The Tar Heels want payback after Duke stole one in Chapel Hill last month. The inconsistent Blue Devils would love nothing more than to add fuel to the fire with another huge “W.” If it’s close late, there’ll be serious pressure on UNC’s Roy Williams not to be outcoached (again).
Up: Saint Mary’s. The 24-4 Gaels won their final five West Coast Conference games to win the league’s regular-season title by tiebreaker over Gonzaga. Do they still have to win the WCC tourney to make the NCAA field? Gosh, hopefully not.
Down: Michigan. The Wolverines have failed pretty much every major test down the stretch; overall, they’ve lost three of four and five of their last eight. On the bubble? Yes, dangerously so.
Up: Frank Mason III, Kansas. The junior point guard has played near-flawless basketball over six games starting with the Jayhawks’ giant victory at Oklahoma. In that time, Mason has average 15.5 points, shot nearly 60 percent from the field and better than 50 percent from the three-point line, and compiled 26 assists against only seven turnovers.
Down: Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern. What was heating up into a breakout season as a scorer has simmered down for the sophomore, who has put up six or fewer points in five of his last nine outings.
22: That’s how many Big Ten regular-season titles (outright or shared) Indiana how has, tying the Hoosiers for first all-time in the league with … any guess? The answer is Purdue. It would be a three-way tie at 22, but Ohio State had a pair of shared titles vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
55: That’s how many jump shots — 13 of them three-point attempts — Iowa senior Jarrod Uthoff had blocked this season, entering Tuesday’s matchup with Indiana. It was the highest total for any player in the country.
50.0%: That’s red-hot Michigan State senior guard Bryn Forbes’ three-point success rate on the season — he’s 92-for-184 — entering Wednesday’s game at Rutgers. Players must average a minimum of two and a half three-point makes per game to qualify for the NCAA’s official list.
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