Health and depth are valued assets for any sports team, at least until playing time becomes an issue.
The size of the roster may grow or shrink, but for a college basketball team, there are still just 200 minutes per game to be handed out.
That wasn’t an issue last year when a handful of players watched each game in street clothes, recovering from an assortment of injuries. Depth was thin. But the current University of Illinois basketball team does not have a single player sitting out hurt and the one player who has been hugging the bench in a golf shirt and khakis will be eligible to suit up Saturday.
Kipper Nichols, the Tulane transfer, has waited for the fall semester to end before the NCAA gave him clearance to play. The redshirt freshman will be in uniform Saturday at the United Center in Chicago when Illinois (8-3) plays Brigham Young (7-3).
The format for the annual United Center game changes this year to accommodate a doubleheader with Northwestern taking on Dayton at 6 p.m., followed by Illinois and BYU at 8:30.
The sight of Nichols will excite fans. He’s only 19, but he has the physique of a 24-year-old, an impressively sculpted 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame that has reminded teammates of Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler. “A college-made body,” Illini coach John Groce calls it.
But before anyone anoints the Cleveland native as a major factor in the current Illini lineup, it’s wise to remember he has yet to play a college game and the forwards who have been playing already have earned their minutes.
Nichols obviously won’t be taking time from senior small forward Malcolm Hill, who leads Illinois in scoring and minutes played. Barring injury or foul trouble, he won’t be taking many minutes from power forward Leron Black, Illinois’ leading rebounder who has scored at least 15 points in six straight games.
Michael Finke, another power forward, was just 1 for 7 shooting the ball last weekend against Central Michigan. Nevertheless, he earned Groce’s praise for other contributions.
“I thought Finke was unbelievable on the backboard,” said Groce, who pointed out that Finke had seven rebounds including four on the offensive glass. “His effort was tremendous. He didn’t shoot it well but he played well.”
Even sophomore D.J. Williams, who had been finding minutes difficult to come by, has made a favorable impression the last two games. He figures to remain in the rotation.
So projecting Nichols’ immediate contribution isn’t easy.
“With Kipper, a lot will be based on practice, a lot on film and what we need to play well vs. BYU,” Groce said. “He brings something different to the table with his defense and his body. Other players have other qualities. That’s why I keep referencing strength in numbers. How much we use him is still to be determined.”
The playing time issue isn’t limited to the forward position.
At guard, Groce has been starting Tracy Abrams, who had 31 points his last time out, and Jalen Coleman-Lands, whose 3-point shooting has been off but in whom Groce has a great deal of faith.
Senior Jaylon Tate has been the first guard off the bench, which has limited the opportunities for sophomore Aaron Jordan and freshman Te’Jon Lucas. Neither played Saturday and Groce said that was strictly “a coach’s decision” based on practice and game performance.
The implication: Players had better be sharp in practice if they want to be considered for more playing time.
Groce said he feels like a baseball manager trying to manage his bullpen. He has short relievers, long relievers and closers; mixing and matching them depending on the game situation is his challenge.
It won’t be easy for one of those backups to gain a more prominent role, but Groce would welcome that problem, too.
“You hope someone emerges and disengages themselves from the group,” Groce said. “If not, we’re trying to use them to the best of their ability.
“You have to check your ego at the door.”