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…
- Slash – the motion is dead, long live the slash. Last year we saw set plays run, driving lanes emphasized, and (thankfully) few instances of dribbling out the shot-clock and heaving a bad three. This year’s team will certainly emphasize driving, drawing fouls, and old-fashioned three-point plays. Rayvonte Rice, Bertrand, and Abrams should all excel here. An improving ability to run a fast-break will also emphasize slashing opportunities.
- Rice – the Illini haven’t had an instinctive finisher like Ray Rice in a loooong time. A guy who craves the contact, knows the angles, and can handle the rock on a string to the bucket. Frank Williams, Kiwanne Garris, maybe? That’s some good company. If Ray can approach that company, the Illini will be better than advertised. We do expect Rice to be the team leader in free throw attempts, and with the rule changes, he couldn’t come along at a better time.
- Clang – Who will shoot threes on this team? Seriously. Illinois finally had a few go in the second half yesterday, but prior to that it looked grim. Teams will zone and pack the lane all year if the outside shooting remains suspect. This probably isn’t a point of emphasis for Coach Groce right now, but when you play the better teams you’ll need someone to keep them honest. Jon Ekey, Malcolm Hill, someone… Please.
- D-Rotation – defensive rotations didn’t look all that good, resulting in far too many lay-ups and drives. This certainly is a key point for the staff as they try to get the new players to understand their team defense concepts. The rules changes make this tougher for sure, with the refs blowing fouls on any perceived contact to the rim. Guys were late to recognize and react on picks and help scenarios. This has to improve (and surely it will) or the Orange-and-Blue will get smacked by good teams.
- Greenhorns – the freshmen all played, and they all have to be ready. You know you’re going to face foul trouble. Of the group, Jaylon Tate looked ready. In fact, he looked like the true point guard the team has lacked for years. Eight assists and one turnover yesterday (trying to temper expectations and excitement here). Malcolm Hill is next on the list – playing out of position at the 4-spot. He has a lot to learn about rebounding and defense, but he’s a smart player and he can shoot. Kenderick Nunn looked like he was having trouble adjusting to limited minutes. Athletically he can do it; let’s see how mentally tough he is. Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan looked like redshirt candidates. Colbert has bounce and Morgan has mass, but they both looked very, very raw. To some extent, these two green big guys could mean the difference between a sub .500 year and sneaking into the Tourney. They need to be able to provide effective cover, because trouble is just a few Egwu touch-fouls away.