LINCOLN, Neb. — John Groce likes ’80s music, a genre littered with one-hit wonders. His favorite? “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners.
But as much as Illinois’ second-year coach likes crooning along with lines like “At this moment, you mean everything,” he doesn’t want to go the way of Dexys Midnight Runners and become a one-hit wonder. Because at this moment, the move Groce made in Sunday’s win at Penn State — inserting freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill into the starting lineup for the first time in their careers in place of fifth-year seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey — has meant everything with regard to Illinois ending its eight-game losing streak.
Nunn (19 points) and Hill (11) responded with career-best games. The hope is it was a sign of things to come, starting with Wednesday night’s game against Nebraska (8 p.m., BTN) at Pinnacle Bank Arena, not their peak.
“I don’t want those guys to be a one-hit wonder,” Groce said. “I want to see if they can do it consistently.”
The move was one Groce and the Illinois staff had been pondering in recent weeks as Nunn and Hill continued to show promise at the offensive end of the floor. Their complete games, though, hadn’t reached a level the coaching staff felt was high enough consistently to unseat Bertrand and Ekey until the homestand against Iowa and Wisconsin.
“You could see them getting a little bit better and starting to grasp it,” Groce said. “I just didn’t feel like defensively, when I looked at the numbers and combinations of players, they weren’t where we needed them to be yet.”
They’re there now, and the key for them now is to maintain a level of consistency that can be counted on the remainder of the season as they grow into a couple of cornerstones in the program going forward.
It’s not an easy transition to make. Tracy Abrams was in a similar situation two years ago when he was a freshman at Illinois, being inserted into the starting five consistently during Big Ten play in 2011-12. Nunn and Hill might have caught Penn State off guard a bit Sunday, but from here on out, everyone will know who they are and what they’re capable of doing.
“I think it’s definitely a process. Guys start guarding you different. You go from that guy deep on the scouting report to now you’re near the top of the list,” said Abrams, the Illini team MVP that season.
As he made his way around campus the past couple of days, Nunn said he’s frequently been stopped and congratulated for his breakout performance from fellow UI students. On and off the court, the 6-foot-3 junior from Simeon is becoming more and more sure of himself.
“It’s built my confidence a little bit,” he said.
Using the lineup with Nunn, Hill, Abrams, Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu going forward was going to be determined in large part to how the rookies carried themselves after their eye-opening performances Sunday. Groce said in Monday’s practice they handled themselves in a professional manner, and everyone in the program shared his sentiment.
“I don’t see anything that’s changed with those guys. That’s good,” Abrams said. “It just shows their maturity and how far they’ve come from when they came here in June.”
The change gives Illinois a blend of young players along with veterans in the starting lineup. It also provides much more firepower off the bench with Bertrand (10.6 ppg) and Ekey (7.9) as two veterans who can put points on the scoreboard in a hurry.
“As I explained it to Joe and Jon, it’s a great luxury when you have those guys as seniors who have kind of seen and been through things before,” Groce said. “Both guys have come off the bench during their careers. Both guys have started. I basically asked those two guys to sacrifice to see if it could change up the combinations and rotations and blends of our players throughout the game.”
Since he arrived in March 2010, Groce has insisted he’d like to utilize a consistent rotation of nine or 10 guys. On Sunday he played 10 players double-digit minutes. Whether that continues will be up to the players and how well each continues to progress.
“Hopefully even more guys start catching up so we can play guys, keep them a little more fresh, change up our rotations a little bit,” Groce said.
In their hit, Dexys Midnight Runners said: “Now you’re full grown. Now you have shown.”
That’s the case for the UI pups. The key now is to build upon it and hope that Sunday at Penn State wasn’t their “Come on Eileen.”