PREVIEW: Illinois vs North Florida

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' season opener against North Florida on Friday night.

Illinois (0-0) vs.

North Florida (0-0)

Date & Time: Nov. 13, 7 p.m. CT

Location: Prairie Capital Convention Center (Springfield, Ill.)

TV: BTN Plus

Quick Hits

  • North Florida went 23-12 last season and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
  • The Ospreys have only had a Division I basketball program since 2005.
  • North Florida was one of the top 20 teams in the country in three-point field goal percentage (39.1) last year.
  • The Illini are 21-0 in November under head coach John Groce.
  • Illinois is 16-0 in season openers since 1999.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR) - Groce was happy with the way Tate defended the ball against Illinois-Springfield, but the real test awaits on Friday. Can he provide enough resistance?

Aaron Jordan (FR) - Jordan was confident and aggressive on the offensive end last Sunday, which was a great sign. The Illini could use another solid scoring output, but more importantly, he needs to contribute to getting stops.

D.J. Williams (FR) - Playing against high-level hoopers is nothing new for Williams even as a freshman. But what the Illini can get out of him on a given night is another question. 

Malcolm Hill (JR) - Hill played within the flow of the game against Illinois-Springfield, and he put together a sound stat line. But this matchup calls for Hill to be assertive early and often. He'll need to look the part of an All-Big Ten performer.

Mike Thorne (GR) - Thorne admitted he was nervous in the first half of Sunday's game, before he got things going in the second half. The Illini hope he can channel that energy from the get-go. 

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR) - Whatever Coleman-Lands ate before the Illinois-Springfield game, feed it to him again. The talented freshman could be an X factor in this game if he gets it going from the outside.

Leron Black (SO) - Black looked great in a pregame workout on Sunday, and all indications are positive heading into this one. Having him good to go would be outstanding. Black's energy, defense and rebounding are invaluable.

Khalid Lewis (GR) - Lewis surprised fans, media members and even people inside the basketball program when he went 3-for-3 from deep on Sunday. It was a great confidence booster for the newcomer, but his main mission will be to slow down North Florida's attack.

Michael Finke (R-FR) - Finke looked a little uncomfortable against Illinois-Springfield, and it's understandable that he'd have a few jitters. He'll be needed to give Thorne some rest in this one, especially with the mobility of the opposing bigs.

Maverick Morgan (JR) - Morgan had a good offensive showing on Sunday with eight points in 12 minutes. However, the slow-footed big man doesn't appear to be a good fit in this game.

Alex Austin (R-JR) - Austin's status for the season opener is unknown after suffering a shoulder injury.

North Florida Starters

Dallas Moore (JR) - What does Groce think of Moore? He said the lefty point guard reminds him of his beloved former playmaker D.J. Cooper. Moore led the Ospreys with 15.8 points per game last year, while shooting nearly 39 percent from deep.

Trent Mackey (SR) - Mackey played more than 25 minutes per game off the bench last season, and now he will embrace a starting role. Don't sleep on him from the outside. Mackey shot 43.5 percent from three last season.

Beau Beech (SR) - Moore runs the show at the point, but the Illini have Beech spotlighted as much as anyone on this roster. The 6-foot-8 wing has a versatile offensive game, and he is also an outstanding shooter. Beech averaged 12.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last year.

Demarcus Daniels (SR) - Daniels is a tough matchup with length, athleticism and inside-out versatility. The 6-foot-8 forward attacks the glass, as he led the Ospreys in offensive rebounds. Daniels also isn't afraid to take and make open threes (39.3 percent last year).

Chris Davenport (JR) - With an injury to starting center Romelo Banks, Davenport will slide down to the five spot. That will present a tough defensive task in guarding Thorne. However, the same can be said on the other side. Davenport averaged 11.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Make North Florida work for every bucket: When you're playing a team that can hit open shots like they're throwing a beach ball into the Atlantic Ocean, you can't afford to make mistakes at the defensive end. The Illini had mishaps against Illinois-Springfield with transition defense and matching up. They also allowed second-chance opportunities, which were often caused by failing to box out on the perimeter. That simply can't happen against North Florida. It all starts with Tate or Lewis pressuring Moore, while others defend the passing lanes. The Ospreys have been prone to turnovers in the past, and a big reason why they fell against Iowa last season was because of 20 giveaways despite outshooting the Hawkeyes. Thorne's defense will be key as well, and he will be challenged against a mobile big man in Davenport. The Illini must ratchet up the intensity and be sound defensively if they're going to win this game.

2. Hill in 'takeover mode': Big-time players rise to the occasion in big-time games, and the Illini need to see that with Hill on Friday night. The junior forward will be the best player on the floor and he'll have to look the part. Hill didn't need to assert himself against a lesser opponent in Illinois-Springfield, but he admitted on Wednesday that this will be a different story. The Illini must put the ball in Hill's hands early and often to get things going in the opening minutes. Hill put up 20 points in 36 minutes during the scrimmage against Xavier on Nov. 1, and he'll have to do something similar this time around. The game will likely be neck-and-neck heading down the stretch, and it will be crucial that Hill finds ways to score even when the defense knows where the ball is going.

3. Win the backboard battle: The Illini outrebounded Illinois-Springfield 45-to-34, but they did not control the glass like they should have - especially in the first half. Illinois must get a total team effort on the backboards in this game. Thorne will have a size advantage in the post, and he will be counted on to seize the opportunity. That should present second-chance opportunities. North Florida came away with a victory against Purdue last season, but they gave up 24 offensive rebounds. Depending on his minutes, Black could make a big impact in that area as well. At the other end, the Illini have to track down misses and prevent second-chance looks. 

Prediction

The Illini haven't lost a season opener since 1998 when they fell to Wake Forest at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York City. However, outside of Gonzaga in 2001, North Florida is likely the toughest opening opponent for Illinois during that 17-year span. The Ospreys are offensively dangerous and they are an experienced group. Furthermore, they know how to walk into a Big Ten environment and win, as they took down Purdue in West Lafayette last December. The Illini will be pushed to the limit in one, and it could go either way like a flip of a coin. But by best guess, Hill takes control late and the Illini find a way to get it done.

Illinois 80, North Florida 78


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