Illinois missing key starters as season nears

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois is already behind without playing a game this season.

Within days of John Groce's announcement that he wants Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to lead Illinois this season, Nunn was lost to injury. He is among three starters and a key backup who are out - and one of those starters, point guard Tracy Abrams, will miss his second straight season.

''I tried to make sure, when I got up out of bed this morning, that I didn't trip over anything or, you know, tried to remain healthy between the walk from the hotel room down the elevator here to the press conference,'' Groce told reporters at Big Ten media day.

This all comes at a time when Illinois fans had hoped Groce would be delivering seasons of 20-plus wins and deep NCAA Tournament runs.

Instead, Illinois has been to back-to-back National Invitation Tournaments, finishing 19-14 last season, and will have to fight to stay above water in the Big Ten - again.

Things to know as the Illini get ready for the season:

THE INFIRMARY: Abrams tore an Achilles tendon in July after spending almost a year rehabbing from an anterior cruciate ligament tear. Nunn had surgery on his left thumb in October and is expected back by late November. Sophomore forward Leron Black, another likely starter, is scheduled to be back sometime in November after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, that key backup, is due back from a stress fracture sometime after Nov. 1.

''I was telling somebody outside if (the doctor) says, `Hey, the guy is going to be out four weeks' and you go, `Yes!' you know you've been through a lot,'' Groce said.

NEW FACES: Illinois still has high expectations for Coleman-Lands, a 6-3 guard who the Illini hope can start providing scoring off the bench as soon as he's back. Mike Thorne Jr., a 6-11 center who transferred as a graduate student from Charlotte, is also expected to step in quickly. Ideally he will pick up many of the minutes left behind by the graduation of 6-11 Nnanna Egwu. But where Egwu was a defensive force who didn't score much, Thorne is at his best on offense. Another pair of guards, graduate-transfer Khalid Lewis and freshman D.J. Williams, are likely to play significant minutes, too.

HILL'S TEAM: Hill is the leading scorer among returning players after averaging 14.4 points a game last season. And he says he more comfortable with both the leadership role Groce wants him to take on and dealing with injuries elsewhere on the roster.

''We're always going to have adversity. We did last year,'' Hill said.

Top scorer and rebounder Rayvonte Rice missed nine straight Big Ten games with an injury and a suspension last season, but Illinois was 6-3 without him, including a win over Maryland. Hill and Nunn provided the scoring with Rice out.

POINT GUARD: With Abrams out, point guard was a problem for Illinois last season. And it could be again. Junior Jaylon Tate is expected to compete with Lewis for the starting job. Tate averaged 2.9 assists a game last season (13th in the Big Ten), sharing time at point guard. But his shooting has been a weakness. He made 36.8 percent of his shots last season and just 1 of 12 3-pointers. Lewis is expected to be Tate's chief competition. He averaged 6 points and 2.2 assists a game as a sometimes-starter at LaSalle.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Illinois will play a Nov. 8 exhibition game and its first four ''home'' games about 90 miles west of campus at the 7,700-seat Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield while renovation work wraps up on the State Farm Center. The revamped campus arena is expected to be ready for a Dec. 12 game against Notre Dame.

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