Illinois basketball had a heck of a starting lineup sitting on the bench for Sunday's "All-In Scrimmage." Four of the five were injured: Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Leron Black. The other is no longer eligible to play: recently graduated senior Nnanna Egwu. The Illini played just eight scholarship players during the scrimmage. Walk-ons Alex Austin and Mike LaTulip not only played a lot but played well (especially when they were guarding each other), and Illinois didn't substitute until late in the final of the three, eight-minute periods. With so little depth, this obviously is a very limited group -- both offensively and defensively.
Jalen Coleman-Lands will be the first to return from injury. After suffering a stress fracture in his lower left leg, the freshman guard, a top-50 recruit, has started basketball activities and is participating in individual drills during practice but has not participated yet in 5-on-5 team drills. If Illinois were to scrimmage another team this weekend -- shhh! -- he likely will not play. But he likely will return to team practices in the next few weeks. It is still unclear whether he will play in the Nov. 8 exhibition against UI-Springfield or be ready for the Nov. 13 season opener against North Florida. Black (who wore a wrap on his right knee) and Nunn (who has a cast on his left thumb) are doing conditioning drills. A good expectation for a return date for Black likely would be around Thanksgiving. Nunn won't be back until mid-December at the earliest.
Mike Thorne changes the dynamic of the Illinois offense. I wrote about Thorne's performance (15 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks) here. Illinois ran its offense through the 6-foot-11, 275-pound big man, and even when Nunn, Coleman-Lands and Black return, it should remain the same. Thorne is the most prolific post scorer the Illini have had since Shaun Pruitt -- yes, Meyers Leonard was more talented, but Thorne is more refined in the post. Now, Thorne likely won't be an All-Big Ten talent, but he's definitely a very capable Big Ten offensive option inside. He has polished footwork and good touch with both hands, which makes him difficult to guard one-on-one. He's also a solid passer. Some teams will have to double team or dig on him, which should create more space for the outside shooters. He also takes up so much space on the defensive and offensive glass. He swallows boards. When he transferred, I thought it'd be unfair to expect the 10 and 7 he averaged at Charlotte. After seeing him, I think he may come close to matching that output.
Malcolm Hill didn't dominate. But I wouldn't worry about it. Hill's shot wasn't working well in the first period, but he found his rhythm in the second period (8 points) and took a backseat to Thorne in the third period. Hill (10 points, eight rebounds) showed his versatility by playing the 4, 3 and 1. Hill (4-for-9 FG) is a tough matchup for defenses at each spot. He can overpower smaller defenders, out-maneuver bigger defenders and he looked comfortable leading the charge as the point guard. His lean-in-into-a-fadeaway-jumper is his moneymaker and pretty indefensible. I wouldn't be surprised if Hill played a handful of minutes at the 1 once the team gets healthy. The Illini need their best five on the floor as much as possible, and that could be Hill, Nunn, Coleman-Lands, Black and Thorne. The one big plus of Hill at the 1 is that it puts him in more ball-screen situations immediately, and he's really good at those.
Michael Finke continues to be an intriguing player. The 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman (12 points, 5 rebounds) was one of the best offensive options on the floor. He's versatile. He splashed a three, made free throws, got a rebound and dunked the putback. The best part of his game, though, is his passing. He knows how to set up defenses and his teammates. He made a few great passes to the perimeter on which his teammates just didn't convert. Finke's issues are mostly on the defensive end. He's a bit slow-footed and while he's added strength, he'll struggle against Big Ten big men. He played exclusively at the 4 on Sunday.
Aaron Jordan is ready to contribute a little bit. While he needs to add a lot of strength -- and will have struggles because of it -- Jordan (9 points) understands his role, unlike most freshmen. Jordan's biggest strength is he can shoot. He went 3-for-5 from three and shot 40 percent from three during the European trip. He looked very comfortable in a strong offensive grouping with Jaylon Tate, Hill, Finke and Thorne and didn't hesitate to pop a shot. He also puts forth great effort on defense and his 6-foot-5 frame makes him a pretty good potential on that end. John Groce said Jordan doesn't know exactly what he's doing on defense but that he's willing. He hassled Hill a bit in the first period. Jordan could be really good as an upperclassman. While he will have his struggles as a freshman, he can make some small contributions, especially as a shooter.
D.J. Williams is inconsistent. You've heard this before. The 6-foot-7 freshman (2-for-7 FG, 4 points) looks intriguing. Williams is long, athletic and skilled. He had a few nice lay-up finishes around the rim. But otheriwse, he wasn't really noticeable. He's a rail right now and will struggle with physicality, but I wish he'd focus on putting forth as hard of a defensive effort as possible. That's how he'll get on the floor early.
Jaylon Tate is the Illini's best point guard right now. He didn't flash huge improvement, but Tate (10 points, 2 assists, 0 turnovers) looked so comfortable leading the charge and attacked the basket pretty well. That's Tate's ticket to scoring points because he's a phenomenal free-throw shooter. He didn't attempt any threes but he did make a midrange shot. If he can make one of those every game, it'd be a big help.
Khalid Lewis looks like he's trying to figure out his role on this team. When I talked to him a few weeks ago, he said as much. On Sunday, he didn't hurt the Illini but he didn't help them much either. You can see he's athletic. You can see he likes to defend. You can see he likes to push the ball. But he's a bit timid and really deferential right now. Lewis (4 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers) looks like the new kid at school who isn't yet comfortable in letting everyone see his real personality. At worst, he provides defense, toughness and a capable ballhandler off the bench.
Maverick Morgan didn't show much improvement. Thorne tore him up on the block, he fouled a lot and had four turnovers. Thorne looks more like a 25-minute player, and with Finke playing mostly at the 4, Morgan (2 points, 5 fouls) will have to contribute. You just hope Morgan hasn't already reached his ceiling because he still hasn't proven he can be relied on.
Walk-on Alex Austin held his own. The former Eastern Illinois guard actually was the star of the first period, scoring nine points, before really cooling off (0 points the final two periods). He's a better option than Mike LaTulip the last few seasons because he has a bit more strength and can defend. Still, many of his points were scored against LaTulip. Austin might play some meaningful minutes early on but probably won't be much more than an emergency option. By the way, LaTulip -- who will not play this season so he can transfer and use his one year of eligiblity elsewhere -- scored 11 points and has a sweet Justin Bieber haircut.
Jarell Pitts made his Illini debut, when he checked in with about 30 seconds left in the third period. Pitts is a guard who hasn't officially been named a walk-on yet. He would give the Illini another practice player, along with walk-on Cameron Liss.
The best lineup the Illini put out on the court was... Tate, Jordan, Hill, Finke and Thorne. Those were the best five players and they trouced the opposing squad 21-7. The problem is that this group probably won't defend well against good teams -- say, Xavier, if they played this weekend (not that they are, of course). You could sub Williams in for Finke to go smaller and more athletic but you'd lose a lot offensively. You could sub Lewis in for Finke -- Lewis and Tate played together in the third period and their team lost 18-10 -- but, again, you'd lose a lot offensively. Groce doesn't have many options, but that five looks like his best five right now.
Heal quickly, Illini.