John Groce's Illinois Fighting Illini have dropped 10 of their last 11 contests, posting a 3-10 Big Ten record, good for last place in the 12-team conference. Illinois started league play with an overtime victory over Indiana, but have only posted a pair of wins against Penn State since that point.
Heading into their second matchup versus Penn State, Groce switched up the starting lineup, moving freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill into the starting five in place of seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey. Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu have been mainstays as starters, though each have experienced their share of ups and downs as juniors.
Abrams, Illinois' second leading scorer and top assist man, hasn't taken an upperclassman leap as the Illini faithful would have hoped. Abrams scores 11.2 points and dishes out 3.0 assists per night in 29.0 minutes, almost mirror figures from his sophomore season.
On Saturday evening, Abrams ended a three-game slump of single digit scoring, as he dropped 13 points on Ohio State, though on 4-of-12 shooting. Abrams' 13 points still accounted for one-third of Illinois' offensive production, as the Buckeyes won the ugly contest by a score of 48-39.
Abrams only scored 13 points in the previous three contests, shooting 2-of-17 from the field during that stretch and failing to hit a field goal in five consecutive halves. The silver lining for Abrams would be that he assisted on 10 baskets during his scoring slump, compared to only five turnovers.
After starting games on the bench for a good portion of his freshman season, Groce finally slotted Nunn into the starting lineup in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. In Nunn's first start, he scored a career-high 19 points, including a dagger three-pointer in a 60-55 win at Penn State.
On the season, Nunn averages 4.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 15.7 minutes, though those numbers should jump with his increased role. Following the Penn State win, Nunn scored nine points at Nebraska and five points against Ohio State, on combined 5-of-12 shooting, hitting a three-pointer in each contest.
Nunn has converted on just under 33 percent of his three-balls, but has the ability to both knock down the jumper or attack the rack. The smooth-stroking lefty is also one of Illinois' top defenders and has proven to be one of the league's toughest players, as evidenced by his spat with Penn State guard D.J. Newbill.
Rice is the only player in the entire Big Ten to lead his team in points, rebounds and steals, compiling a stat line of 16.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, while also dishing out 1.6 assists in a team-high 32.9 minutes of action.
Most impressive is the fact that Rice has been able to replicate his sophomore year numbers at Drake, despite experiencing a major upgrade in competition as he transitioned from the Missouri Valley to the Big Ten. Rice will likely finish the season on one of the All-Big Ten teams for his efforts.
Over the past three games, Rice is averaging 14.3 points though on 37 percent shooting. On the season, Rice is a 43 percent shooter from the floor. Rice has also contributed only one assist over the past three games, feeling the weight of the offense on his shoulders and at times trying to do too much.
Similar to Nunn, Hill entered the starting lineup for the first time at Penn State and has held the role since. As a true freshman, Hill is averaging 3.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in 12.0 minutes of playing time. A natural small forward, Hill has made the move to power forward for an undersized Illini squad.
Hill also scored a career-high 11 points in that streak-ending win over the Nittany Lions, but hasn't been as assertive since. Hill has scored 10 points in Illinois' last two games, both losses, but has only attempted six shots (making three) and pulled in three rebounds over those combined 41 minutes.
Despite his new status of starter, Jon Ekey still sees a lion's share of the minutes down the stretch. Ekey is a high IQ player that won't turn the ball over and can make free throws down the stretch, though Hill's upside is much greater. Look for Hill to start shooting the rock more in Illinois' final five games of 2013-14.
Similar to fellow junior Abrams, many Illini fans had high hopes of a new-and-improved Egwu as a junior, some even thinking this season could be his last in Champaign with an NBA future ahead of him. To this point, that Egwu hasn't shown up as he averages 6.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.
Fortunately for Egwu, his stock is on the rise, after back-to-back 12 and 14 rebound efforts in Illinois' most recent games against Nebraska and Ohio State. Defensively, Egwu has been an animal, blocking at least three shots in four of the last five games.
He has scored in double figures only once during those same five games, though it should be noted that he hasn't attempted a three-pointer in eight straight games after struggling from deep early on. Egwu has picked up 13 fouls over the past three games, though a tougher and more aggressive Egwu is a good sign.