If that's what Jalen Coleman-Lands looks like after just a few days of full-go practice, Illini fans are in for one heck of a treat. The sharpshooting freshman led all scorers with 20 points during Sunday's exhibition game against Illinois-Springfield. Coleman-Lands showcased his silky smooth outside stroke by burying five triples on the game. He also added three steals, which displayed his overall knack for making plays. No one knew what to expect prior to Sunday's tip, and head coach John Groce admitted in the postgame press conference that Coleman-Lands looked better than he even anticipated. That being said, Groce added that Coleman-Lands still needs to progress defensively and with his conditioning. But overall, it was a huge positive for the Illini. Coleman-Lands is a high level shot-maker, and the Illinois faithful has been anxiously awaiting his arrival since he committed to the program last fall. Sunday was an opportunity to peel off some of the wrapping paper on Groce's best gift in the 2015 class.
Coleman-Lands wasn't the only freshman who showed promise. The Illini got a strong offensive outing from Aaron Jordan, who started at the two. Jordan finished with 16 points and seven rebounds on the day. It's no secret that he can score the ball as well, and it was impressive to see his aggressiveness and confidence coming out of the gate. Jordan and D.J. Williams have benefitted from extensive reps in practice due to the injury situation, and they both played 20-plus minutes on Sunday. Williams showed some flashes with seven points, three rebounds and three assists. There are lessons to be learned from this game, though. All three freshmen struggled to block out on the wing, which provided second-chance opportunities for Illinois-Springfield. There was more to be desired defensively as well. They will be challenged in all facets against a talented North Florida team on Friday in the season opener.
The Illini showed they can score, but defense and rebounding continue to be big question marks. Illinois-Springfield did not shoot the ball well as a whole (31.8 percent), but that doesn't mean the Illini defended at the level that will be needed against North Florida. Groce felt that his team defended in spurts, including a stretch where they got seven stops in a row. But other times, the Illini failed to matchup in transition and got beat off the dribble. In addition, they did not control the glass adequately during the first 20 minutes. The Illini outrebounded the Prairie Stars by just one in the first half, and they gave up nine offensive rebounds on the game. Second-chance opportunities could prove to be deadly against North Florida with their offensive firepower. These will be big focus points during practice this week.
Mike Thorne came alive in the second half. Some early nerves and foul trouble limited Thorne to just eight minutes in the first half. But the big man was ready to eat during the final 20 minutes. Thorne continues to impress with offensive arsenal in the low post. He can power through contact or spin off with a hook over either shoulder. Thorne finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, while also making an impact defensively with four blocks. The fifth-year transfer will be challenged with guarding smaller, more mobile bigs during the early part of the schedule. But that will also present him with mismatches at the other end. A scoring threat in the paint is a sight for sore eyes for Illini fans. Thorne has the potential to be a major difference-maker for the Illini this season, and he'll need to step up during a tough stretch to kick things off.
Leron Black looks ready to go. The sophomore forward was in street clothes when Sunday's game began, but you can expect him to be in uniform for the opener on Friday. Black looked great during a pregame workout with Illini assistant Dustin Ford and graduate manager James Haring. He moved around with unhampered mobility, executed post moves and splashed jumpers at a high frequency. Black even showed off his three-point range, as he hit nine consecutive triples during one stretch. Groce said that like Coleman-Lands did this past week, Black will transition back to full contact in practice and he will have an opportunity to play against North Florida. That is a huge bonus for the Illini.
Malcolm Hill was quietly productive. He didn't put up the numbers you'd expect, but no one in Illini nation should be concerned. Hill finished with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists on Sunday. Illinois-Springfield head coach Bill Walker called it a "mature" performance from the junior forward. Hill didn't need to take a high volume of shots to be effective. However, the Illini will likely need him to be in 'takeover mode' on Friday. Hill answered the call against Xavier by putting up a game-high 20 points in the secret scrimmage. He'll be ready for the spotlight again against North Florida.
Groce liked the play of his point guards. The Illini got a little bit of everything out of Jaylon Tate on Sunday, as he posted six points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal. The junior guard even hit a three. Yes, that really happened. Fifth-year senior Khalid Lewis also came to play in Springfield. Lewis finished with 13 points and four assists, while hitting all three of his attempts from deep. Groce said he was most pleased with the way Lewis and Tate defended the ball and pushed the tempo. The duo will be tested on Friday against Dallas Moore, who led North Florida in scoring last season (15.8 ppg).
Free throws will be shot at Ubben this week. With 52 total fouls between the teams, there were more whistles heard at the Prairie Capital Convention Center than at the annual Joe's Brewery Bikini Contest. Unfortunately, the Illini did not fully capitalize on their opportunities from the line. They made just four of their first 13 attempts from the stripe, and they were 22-for-38 on the game. You can expect free throws by the dozen to be on the agenda this week in practice.