Illinois basketball opened the season this weekend with a pair of wins over Alabama State (80-63) and Jacksonville State (86-62). Both opponents were small conference foes who were never going to be competitive unless they shot lights out from three-land. You can only take away so much from these types of games; but you better believe John Groce and company saw plenty. And the coaching staff has the definite objective of blooding the five freshmen, building the depth and confidence, and getting prepared for the foul-out slugfests to come next month and in conference play.
We mention the foul-outs due to the new points of emphasis the NCAA has implemented to cut down hand-checking, bumping, and Duke-style phantom charges. That sound you hear is Matt Painter grinding his teeth at Purdue. We’re mostly in favor of this, but man are we going to see some ugly games until the players and coaches adjust.
The Illini return just three contributors from last season: Nnanna Egwu, Joe Bertrand, and Tracy Abrams. As has been highlighted elsewhere, the rest are transfers and freshmen. We don’t really know the identity of this team – who will take the clutch shots or grab the vital rebounds. We do know Coach Groce will have them playing hard and attacking the basket. How many wins can this group gather; how will they sack up against top opponents? It’ a big question mark. We’re hoping for post-season play (translate NIT) with a chance to sneak into the NCAA Tourney.
With that in mind, here are five early impressions of the team based on our viewing of the sometimes-choppy Internet broadcast from ESPN 3…