After 17 basketball games, five Illini freshmen are shooting 17.7 percent on three-pointers, 36.9 on field goals and 68.4 on free throws.
That’s far below the standards they were accustomed to last season when 6-foot-10 Maverick Morgan was Division I Player of the Year in Ohio and 6-6 Malcolm Hill was breaking records at Belleville East.
Percentages don’t tell the whole story, but there’s no denying it’s been a trying inaugural season for John Groce’s rookies.
Not that this recruiting class is weak. That’s not the case. This is a promising quintet. It’s just that, in a perfect Illini world, all but Kendrick Nunn should be redshirting. Nunn, a 6-3 southpaw, is the only member with the physical maturity and quickness to play now. He is developing on both ends and has scored at least one basket in the last 10 games, including two that tied the Northwestern debacle at 27-27 and 34-34 Sunday.
As it stands, Morgan and Austin Colbert are novices at the necessary Sumo wrestling skills for Big Ten post play. Hill is a year too young and should still be racking points for the Lancers. Jaylon Tate didn’t crack Simeon’s starting lineup until last season and has slipped after a good start. Hill is shooting 15.8 percent from the arc, and Tate shows 6.7 (1 of 15).
The five freshmen are Groce’s only reserves on scholarship.
“We need everybody,” the coach said. “We have a small margin for error, and we have to do this by committee.”
As for Tate, he said: “I hope he can grind through it. Confidence comes from inside. It would help if he could convert some of those layups.”
Groce made his concerns known via his substitution pattern Sunday, Hill playing four minutes and Tate three.
Patience is key
These young athletes will zero in someday. Which brings us to the problem: For Illinois to attain its goals, the rookies need to do it now because, well ... Groce has no other alternatives.
This is a team that, as last seen at Wisconsin and Northwestern, displayed multiple shortcomings. The post-up game is nonexistent, playmaking is mediocre and the 42 percent shooting is dangerously close to last season’s 41.2. For the record, in a period of 55 years, the UI’s lowest was 40.1 in 1968, and that’s where this club is hovering with the toughest rival defenses yet to come.
With Purdue arriving at the Farm on Wednesday, it has become more important for the reserves to simply hold the fort than do anything special.
Around the Big Ten, many teams get a lift when they sub. Iowa is the best example, the Hawkeyes averaging 86 points a game with 611 of the points coming from players who have not started a single game. As a comparison, the Illini’s five freshman subs have scored 213. In Iowa’s 75-71 loss at Wisconsin, the Hawkeye subs sank 8 of 19 shots. In the 84-74 triumph at Ohio State, they made 7 of 22 even as Zach McCabe went 0 for 8.
Repeating, points don’t tell the whole story, but it’s clear that Iowa gets a bigger lift than most from the bench. Fran McCaffery prefers to play that way, and he has the experienced athletes to do it. At the same time, Ohio State comes in with Sam Thompson, a Chicago veteran who hit 13 in the defeat of Marquette, 14 against Maryland and 18 in the overtime loss to Michigan State. Tom Izzo’s Spartans are 15-1 despite injuries to stars Adreian Payne and Gary Harris, thus forcing Izzo to use his bench.
And Wisconsin has a rookie sixth man challenging Indiana center Noah Vonleh for Big Ten rookie honors, 6-7 Nigel Hayes showing 17, 10, 19, 8 and 11 points in the Badgers’ last five games, not to mention 20 rebounds.
“Depth is a bonus,” Groce said, “and when a player can come in and play at a high level, that’s a double bonus.”
Fouling things up
When Purdue comes to town Wednesday, we’ll see the Big Ten’s reigning enigma: 7-foot A.J. Hammons. A product of Gary, Ind., Hammons played at Carmel before transferring to Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, where the prep team was 44-0 in 2012. He is a league-leading shot blocker, which could make Illinois’ headlong drivers cautious, and has been a powerhouse scorer. But his inconsistencies and fouling tendencies have everyone guessing, including coach Matt Painter.
Hammons was suspended for two exhibitions and the season opener, and has been all over the map, playing more than 24 minutes just twice. Directly after an 18-point, 16-rebound, five-block outburst in the 82-79 loss to Ohio State on Dec. 31, he had seven points and one rebound in an 82-79 loss to Minnesota. Then he scored 18 more in defeating Nebraska, 70-64.
Jay Simpson, former Champaign Central standout, often subs for Hammons, and contributed seven points against Nebraska. Returning to today’s substitution theme,
Purdue reserves scored 28 of 70 points against the Cornhuskers.
“We got a spark off the bench Sunday,” Painter said, “and we were able to get the ball inside to Hammons.”
Groce’s subs haven’t matched Purdue’s 28-point output Sunday in any game, and show lows of three points in the 57-55 win against IPFW, four in the 64-52 defeat of Valparaiso, and five in the 65-64 win against Missouri. Instead of getting a spark, the Illini frequently sag when the regulars come out.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.