Already reeling from rough finish to the non-conference season and two straight losses to open Big Ten play, Illinois received another big blow this week.
The Illini lost their best player to a hand injury.
Senior forward Rayvonte Rice will undergo surgery on Wednesday after fracturing his left hand in practice on Monday. Rice officially is out indefinitely, but CBSSports.com reported he could miss up to six weeks.
Surviving without Rice until mid-February will not be easy for an Illinois team that already has backpedaled since a 6-0 start. The Illini (10-5) have lost five of nine since then, falling to Miami, Villanova and Oregon during December and then at Michigan and at Ohio State to open Big Ten play.
Illinois will miss Rice in all facets of the game. The 6-foot-4 wing is both Illinois' leading scorer and rebounder and its most efficient player, averaging 17.2 points per game and sinking 51.5 percent of his shots and 48.3 percent of his threes. He's also maybe Illinois' best perimeter defender and is averaging 1.8 steals per game.
The Illini were starting four guards prior to Rice's injury, but it's possible that freshman forward LeRon Black could enter the starting lineup moving forward. Look for reserve guards Jaylon Tate and Aaron Cosby to also see increased playing time.
Regardless of how Illinois coach John Groce divides up the minutes, Rice's impact is too great and the Illini's schedule is too daunting for his absence not to be felt.
In the next six weeks, Illinois has 11 games including matchups with Maryland, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. None of those were easy even before Rice's injury, and they're only more daunting now.
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