Adversity loves Illinois basketball, and apparently the Illini love adversity back. Twice this season the Illini found out bad news just hours before tip-off of a Big Ten basketball game, and for the second time in less than a month the team responded well to the news handed down to them.
On Saturday morning, head coach John Groce announced returning guards RayVonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were indefinitely suspended from the team. Those two were major pieces to the success the Illini had in the non-conference season and after missing six and two games respectively it would’ve been a big boost to get both back in the lineup.
Instead, the duo were in street clothes and yucking it up on the bench.
Rice and Cosby are on the bench, together and laughing it up during pregame video. #Illini
— Steve Greenberg (@SLGreenberg) January 31, 2015
What they witnessed was a huge win over fellow strugglers, Penn State. Instead of wondering where the scoring was going to come from, Malcolm Hill took the Illini on his back and scored a game-high 27 points, including the game-winning basket, in the 60-58 win.
Adversity didn’t faze them on Saturday afternoon, and that’s because they’ve been dealing with it a lot as of late.
“We’ve been playing without guys for a month now so everyone has to step up,” said point guard Jaylon Tate, via the Chicago Tribune.
Interestingly, Tate and his teammates are pretty good at responding when they’re back is against the wall.
They also did it when faced with the news of RayVonte Rice’s broken hand earlier in January. While the news broke during the day, the team gathered themselves and went out to beat then-No. 11 Maryland 64-57.
Of course the man to respond to the adversity was none other than Malcolm Hill, who poured in a career-high 28 points on 9-18 shooting.
That game was just a glimpse of what Hill could do when given the spotlight, as he’s averaged 18 points per game since Rice went down and has averaged 21 points per game in the last three contests.
The problem is, the Illini haven’t really found a way to play with the mentality it took to win over Penn State or Maryland the rest of the Big Ten season. While the veteran presence of Rice and Cosby would certainly help the chances of saving the season, clearly this team responds well when they aren’t in the mix.
If the Illini can figure out how to bottle the energy and fight it took to win those two games, it could find itself earning an NCAA tournament bid. If not, a losing Big Ten record and no NCAA tournament is likely their fate.