Maybe these freshmen can play after all.
Faced with a must win situation last Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania, Fighting Illini head coach John Groce decided to shake up his starting lineup, one that he had used the entire season to date. That lineup included two freshmen, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, players that had been consistent as of late, and piqued Groce's attention. With the Illini on an eight game losing streak and losing momentum fast, Groce felt the time was right for the change. What followed was pure genius, as Illinois prevailed, defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 60-55, ending the losing streak and breathing some signs of life back into the program.
Nunn had a career high 19 points, while Hill was the only other Illini player in double figures with 11/ Nunn had been playing better as of late, while Hill has been steady for most of the season. All 10 players that saw action played double figure minutes, something Groce wants to do more of, provided that the players respond. "It's up to the players to make that decision", Groce said on Tuesday in a teleconference recapping the win over Penn State. Groce continued by saying that "I hope they (Hill and Nunn) aren't one-hit wonders. I've listened to a lot of 80's music over the past few days, and there are a lot of one-hit wonders in there, and I hope that Malcolm and Kendrick can build upon their performance". Seldom used Austin Colbert put forth a good effort, as did fellow freshman Maverick Morgan in spelling Nnanna Egwu, who only played 2 minutes in the first half due to being in foul trouble. The Illini (14-10, 3-8), now will head to the other side of the conference border Wednesday evening when they take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers at their new home, Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln (8:00 pm CT, BTN). Nebraska is currently 12-10 overall and 4-6 in the conference standings, but have only lost once at home this season. The Cornhuskers are having a resurgence of sorts under second year coach Tim Miles, one of the more colorful coaches in the league. Nebraska has three transfers that see plenty of action, Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford and Leslee Smith. Nebraska has defeated Ohio State and Indiana at home, and their only loss in Lincoln came against Michigan, and that was by a single point. Bottom line is, this is a much different Nebraska team, one that is capable of beating anybody on any given night. For the Illini to get a winning streak going, they will need to do more of what they did against Penn State, and the freshmen will once again have to step up and play like veterans.
Second year women's coach Matt Bollant is having a difficult time stringing wins together, and at times, it can get downright frustrating. The Illini lost for the 6th time in 7 games 66-61 last Sunday to Minnesota at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, and as a result, dropped them to 2-9 in the conference standings and 9-15 overall, something Bollant is not used to. While he was at Wisconsin-Green Bay, he won consistently, and it appears that it may take a bit longer to turn the Illinois program around. The Illini program has been down in recent years, and while Bollant is bringing some talented recruits into the fold, the results are just not there right now. To make matters worse, Mackenzie Piper announced that she is leaving the program, effective immediately. The Illini will get another chance to break the losing streak on Thursday night when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Iowa Hawkeyes (8:00 pm CT, BTN).
With Fighting Illini football on the horizon, they are scheduled to begin practice early next month, including a couple of off-campus appearances. The Illini will travel to Chicago to conduct a practice at Gately Stadium on Friday, March 14th, while also making a trip to Springfield to practice at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School on Friday, April 4th, Both practices will begin at 5:30 pm. The full spring practice schedule can be found by visiting www.fightingillini.com and clicking on the football link.