Illinois (0-0) vs.
Date & Time: Nov. 8, 2 p.m. CT
Location: Prairie Capital Convention Center (Springfield, Ill.)
TV: BTN Plus
- Illinois-Springfield went 11-17 last season under first-year head coach Bill Walker.
- Former Illini guard Rich McBride is entering his second season as an assistant coach at Illinois-Springfield.
- Three players on Illinois-Springfield's roster transferred from Division I programs.
- Two projected Illini starters have played a game in an Illini uniform.
Jaylon Tate (JR): Averaged 3.6 points and 2.9 assists per game as a sophomore with the Illini last season.
Aaron Jordan (FR): Averaged 18.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game as a senior at Plainfield East HS.
D.J. Williams (FR): Averaged 14 points, five assists and four rebounds per game as a senior at Simeon HS.
Malcolm Hill (JR): Averaged 14.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a junior with the Illini last season.
Mike Thorne (GR): Averaged 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game as a senior at Charlotte.
Three things I'm looking for
1. Hill sets the tone: Illini head coach John Groce would like Hill to have a full tank for Friday's season opener, but there's nothing wrong with loosening up the nets at the Prairie Capital Convention Center beforehand. Hill is the unquestioned catalyst of the Illini offense, and it will be up to him to set the tone early on. A scorer is most dangerous when he knows the opponent can't stop him, and that's exactly how Hill should feel. Make plays until Groce calls off the dogs, and get ready to be at your best against a tough North Florida team when the games count. Hill averaged 14.2 points per game last November, and the Illini may need closer to 24 this time around given the injuries and opponents.
2. Freshmen rise up: My, how the outlook has changed. When Jordan and Williams arrived on campus in June, it appeared likely that one would redshirt and the other would contribute marginally off the bench. Now, both are expected to start when the Illini take the court for the first time in Springfield. Like most talented freshmen, Jordan and Williams have shown flashes in practice. But they've been inconsistent as well. Playing mistake-free basketball is not realistic, so the most important key for them is to play hard and be confident without overthinking. A big focus will be on fellow freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands as well. Groce announced on Friday that Coleman-Lands has been practicing at full contact this week and he will be available to play on Sunday. Even at limited minutes, it will be interesting to see if Coleman-Lands can shake off some rust and be ready to contribute next week.
3. Defend with purpose: Much of the focus has been on the offensive side with the Illini missing two of their top three returning scorers in Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black. While the Illini need guys to step up and generate points, making stops at the other end is equally as important. Illinois-Springfield will not be nearly the defensive test that North Florida will be next week, but that should not be an excuse to relax at that end of the floor. Groce would like to see more from Thorne when it comes to defensive execution in the paint. The unit as a whole needs to make defense a big part of their identity. Good teams win games by getting stops in key moments. That will certainly be put to the test in the early stages of the regular season, and the Illini can get the ball rolling by bringing effort and intensity at that end on Sunday.
The final score won't count for anything, but this is the final dress rehearsal until things heat up quickly on the hardwood. This is a great opportunity for the Illini to get used to their "home environment", fine tune the engine and gain some positive momentum heading into the season. Illinois should roll through the Prairie Stars and feel ready to go when they line up for the tip against North Florida on Nov. 13.