Because he grew up in the 1980s, John Groce still indulges himself by listening to hit songs from that decade.
But he knows that for every hit tune that had staying power there were one-hit wonders that made a big splash then quickly faded from view.
John Groce doesn’t want Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to be one-hit wonders.
He made that specific point on Tuesday, one day before Illinois lines up to take on Nebraska in the Huskers’ new 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.
He and everyone else from Illini Nation loved the impact of moving freshmen Nunn and Hill into the starting lineup. Nunn scored 19 points and Hill added 11 as Illinois ended its eight-game losing streak at Penn State on Sunday.
They brought a swagger to the lineup and Nunn didn’t hesitate for a second in launching a 3-point dagger from the corner with 20 seconds to play. It was a huge shot, a play that momentarily made him look like a senior.
Groce will return to that lineup tonight and as much impact as it has in the starting five, it also changes the dynamic of the Illini bench.
Now that Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey are there, it gives Groce some additional punch and experience to rely on. Ekey played very well at Penn State after being told he would not come off the bench. And although Bertrand didn’t contribute much, it wasn’t that he was sulking. He just never got going. I’d look for his contribution to improve against Nebraska.
I asked Groce if he also noticed that Hill in particular brings an element to the offensive game that we just don’t see too often nowadays. And that’s the presence of a mid-range jump shot.
“Malcolm is good in that area,” Groce agreed. “Joe has a gift in that area, too. Nunn is pretty good with that. That’s rare because they are not too many of what I call, ‘mid-range masters’ anymore. Their ability to make shots in that area makes us more versatile offensively.”
Nebraska has been playing better. The Huskers have won three out of four and on Saturday they won at Northwestern.
Terran Petteway, a transfer from Texas Tech, has really given Nebraska a boost. “He reminds me of Ray (Rice),” Groce said.
So has 6-10 Walter Pitchford, a transfer from Florida, and Leslee Smith, who got his college start at SMU. But last year it was the 3-point shooting of Ray Gallegos. He nailed six 3s when these teams met in Champaign.
I’ll just be interested to see Chapter 2 of this new look. I don’t expect Nunn to make four 3s again, but I can’t say that he won’t. We just don’t have a big sample size with these guys playing big minutes.
I feel like Hill will be an upgrade as a rebounder. He fights for the ball in traffic. I feel like Nunn gives this team a more confident presence. He acts like he belongs. And I think Bertrand and Ekeyu will take turns contributing off the bench. On nights when they both get it going, Illinois could flourish.
Nebraska is 10-1 at home this season, the only loss a 1-point decision against Michigan. It hasn’t been easy for teams to win in this new building.
Let’s see if Illinois can score again with the revamped lineup.