CHAMPAIGN – Until Saturday, nearly all of the misfortune that has washed ashore on the Illini basketball beach has been like an oil slick from a tanker run amok – damaging but uninvited.
Illinois wanted nothing to do with what happened to Tracy Abrams in a pre-season workout. But when the senior point guard tore up his knee, his season was over before it could begin.
When Rayvonte Rice tried to fight through a screen Jan. 5 at practice, he used his left hand to break his fall. The resulting fracture was one of those freak injuries that happens in a sport where the physicality is often unappreciated.
The same was true Jan. 18 when an Indiana player inadvertently raked his hand across Aaron Cosby’s face. The resulting retina tear was another example of injuries that are no one’s fault but contribute to a diminishing roster.
This roster’s other significant jolt came in the spring of 2014 when Groce suspended forward Darius Paul following a drinking incident that made it too difficult to ignore two positive marijuana tests.
As a result, Paul faced a year without basketball and instead opted to try to write a clean slate. He entered and completed a substance abuse program, enrolled at a Texas junior college and has recommitted to Illinois, where he is a part of Groce’s 2015 recruiting class.
But on Saturday, just as Illinois was hoping to catch a break with earlier-than-expected injury recoveries by Rice and Cosby, more bad news arrived. And this time it was more than fate and lousy luck.
Less than an hour before Saturday’s home game against Penn State, Groce announced in a press release that he was suspending Rice and Cosby indefinitely for “a violation of team rules.”
Rumors quickly circulated that the “incident” may have occurred a week earlier while Illinois was on a road trip in Minneapolis. But if that were true, why would Groce have spoken so enthusiastically about the possibility that Rice and Cosby could possibly play Saturday?
He went out of his way to plant a picture of Rice with his left hand still encased in some sort of protective padding and of Cosby taking the floor in goggles that would guard his surgically repaired eye.
For now, what the players did to earn a suspension will have to wait. Perhaps we’ll never know.
What we do know is that an Illini team playing with a thin roster may continue to do so and it’s a red mark on Rice’s resume since he was named as one of the team’s captains.
Team captains are selected because they are supposed to embody the type of leadership qualities that set an example for the rest of the team. Rice, apparently, forgot that responsibility.
It’s too bad, because Rice’s return was looked at as a burning fuse that could ignite a late-season Illini surge. When he was injured, he was leading the team in scoring (17.2), rebounds (6.9) and steals (1.8). If he could return, then regain an edge over the next few games, perhaps he could blend with Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to give Illinois three reliable scoring threats.
Until further notice, Hill and Nunn are on their own, and that leaves Illinois looking short-handed, as it did in Saturday’s 60-58 victory over Penn State, a game in which Hill delivered big-time with 27 points including the game-winner with 4.4 seconds to play.
Groce admitted he was particularly disappointed because Rice, a senior, and Cosby, a junior, are veterans.
“Sure, there is no doubt I have higher expectations for veteran guys, guys who know what we’re about, who have been around drinking the same Kool-Aid.
“I still love them and we’re going to help them but they have to make better choices.”
Groce said after the game that both players would have been physically able to go against Penn State, even in limited roles. And both will practice with the team until they are reinstated.
But in my world, Rice would no longer be a captain. I’d make him earn his way back slowly.
Hill, Nunn and the rest need Rice’s help, but they’ve joined with senior Nnanna Egwu to take over leadership of this team. It’s disappointing Rice and Cosby weren’t more focused on joining them.