John Groce wanted to do this for a while.
For about a week or two, the coach specified, he wanted to swap some of his veterans out of the starting lineup in favor for some his many freshmen. It wasn’t a knock on the play of those vets during the Illini’s eight-game losing streak, rather a move to produce better play off the bench and better play from those freshmen by starting them.
So Sunday against Penn State, it was seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey to the bench and freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to the starting five. And it worked. The Illini grabbed a 60-55 road win over the Nittany Lions to finally put an end to that losing streak, and those two freshmen had big games.
“I was also really impressed with the maturity level of our veterans. I made a decision to start two freshmen and bring two guys off the bench,” Groce said after the game. “They had to make some sacrifices. I really felt like Nunn and Hill really earned that opportunity with the way they learned our defense. It was time to give them a shot in the arm that would give us a shot in the arm and blend our team. ... The maturity level of our veterans, the playmaking ability at the end of the day and contributions from all 10 guys — we needed all of it to dig out a very hard-fought road win.”
Nunn and Hill were the only Illini in double figures, scoring 19 and 11 points, respectively, in 31 and 23 minutes, respectively. All four of those numbers marked career highs.
So what was the impetus for the change? Groce laid it out on Monday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference.
“It was a combination of two things,” Groce said. “One, and most importantly, I thought that we needed to mix up our rotation to blend some of our experienced guys, in terms of productivity, with our younger guys. For the majority or the bulk of the year, we’ve been coming off the bench with five freshmen. And so I thought that Ekey and Bertrand’s maturity level as they approach practice — I had told them a couple days before the game what I was going to do — was outstanding. A lot of seniors wouldn’t be able to do that.
“And to be honest with you, I’ve been wanting to do it for a while ... when I say a while I mean maybe a week or two, but I didn’t feel like those guys had quite earned it yet and wanted them to continue to be held accountable on the defensive end. ... We felt like Nunn and Hill had kind of earned that opportunity and that they were ready, and obviously yesterday they took full advantage of it. Both those guys had made offensive plays that would wow you well before yesterday. It was the defensive end and the consistency there that I was looking for for them to be able to take that next step. I felt like they had done that, and that’s what led to the lineup change yesterday.”
Groce said he plans to trot the same starting lineup, complete with Nunn and Hill, out against Nebraska later this week. And why shouldn’t he? Their insertion into the starting five coincided with the end of a miserable losing streak for the Illini. And though a win against fellow Big Ten basement dweller Penn State doesn’t mark a season turnaround, one win is much better than the eight previous games, which all ended in Illinois defeats, regardless of the way the Illini played.
“The reality of it is, they’ve been fighting now for weeks,” Groce said. “It’s not like they just decided to fight and we beat Penn State. They’ve been practicing pretty hard and pretty well. ... I am excited for them that they got rewarded with a positive result for all of their fight and ability to stay together and stick together and be tough through some adversity. So from that stand point I was happy for our kids.”