Piper's points: North Florida over Illinois 93-81

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper gives his takeaways from Illinois' 93-81 defeat against North Florida in the season opener.

There was headshaking aplenty on Friday night. North Florida poured in 93 points and hit 17 threes in a dominating offensive performance. The veteran duo of Dallas Moore and Beau Beech put up ridiculous stat lines. Moore finished with 26 points, 10 assists and no turnovers in 38 minutes. Meanwhile, Beech tallied 25 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three. Some of the headshaking came from Beech's long-range makes, as it seemed he could find nylon from the parking lot. But for those wearing orange and blue, the displeasure came from the lack of resistance to the offensive showcase. The Illini got beat off the dribble, left shooters open and made the Ospreys feel like they were throwing beach balls into the Atlantic Ocean back in Jacksonville. The hope was to put another November win in the books for John Groce, but instead, North Florida will be in the Illini record books for tying the most threes hit by an opponent in program history.

Defensive issues have a number of causes. Groce said that his freshmen made costly mistakes by overhelping on dribble penetration, which left shooters open on the outside. Jalen Coleman-Lands was the main culprit, and his offensive potential was outweighed by his defensive mishaps. But the struggle was certainly team-wide. Illini point guards were unable to contain Moore off the dribble. This was really the first domino that led to the complete defensive collapse. Moore did whatever he wanted with the ball in his hands, and the Illini could not apply pressure or close off passing lanes. On the backside, Illinois didn't get much defensively from Mike Thorne. The Illini gave up 28 points in the paint on just 34 shot attempts inside the three-point line. The most puzzling aspect is that the Illini did not appear to have the necessary recognition on the perimeter when they clearly knew this team could shoot the lights out.

Illinois missed Rayvonte Rice big-time in this one. Say what you want about Illinois' record when Rice came back last year, or how he may or may not have negatively affected team chemistry. Forget that he led the Illini in scoring during both seasons he suited up in the orange and blue. This team is sorely missing a lockdown defender on the perimeter - someone who you know can guard the opponent's best player on the outside night in and night out. Rice was able to do that and create turnovers with his active hands. He provided a certain level of nastiness at that end. Illinois doesn't have that, and they won't have that even when Kendrick Nunn returns. It's no secret why the Illini desperately wanted Xavier Sneed in the 2016 class, and why they're very happy with adding Kipper Nichols in the middle of next season. But that won't help in the short term.

Mike Thorne was the bright spot. Even after a 1-for-5 start from the field, Thorne was the saving grace for the Illini in this one. The big man feasted against North Florida's undersized frontcourt, as he posted 25 points and 14 rebounds in 28 minutes. Thorne has proven to have an outstanding back-to-the-basket game and he'll continue to garner a high number of touches. North Florida surprisingly did not elect to double-team Thorne in the post, and they gave up their fair share of buckets as a result. The transfer big man looks to be the real deal, which explains why Bill Self and John Calipari wanted him in their frontcourt this past spring.

Malcolm Hill was not his best despite a double-double. Hill knew that he had to be assertive in this game for the Illini to win, and he tried to get things going in the first half. However, he was just 3-for-10 in the first 20 minutes, and 7-for-16 on the game. Hill had a stretch in the second half where he made big plays but he was unable to sustain it until the final buzzer. It also didn't help that the Illini were down by 15 with less than 10 minutes to go before Hill scored his first basket of the second frame. Groce will certainly take 20 points and 10 rebounds out of Hill on any given night. But on Friday, his best player needed to be the best player on the floor. And thanks to Beech and Moore, he was not.

Less is Moore. Illini fans couldn't help but envy what they saw at the point guard position on the other side. Moore was dynamic, and he won the point guard battle against Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis by an ocean-sized margin. Groce said earlier this week, and again after the game, that Moore reminds him of his former point guard D.J. Cooper. It hasn't been for a lack of trying, but the Illini haven't had a playmaker on their roster during Groce's tenure that has drawn that kind of comparison. Moore was an unranked prospect out of Florida in the 2013 class with offers from low-major and mid-major programs. That is the same class Illinois added Tate. If only they were so lucky.

Two key opportunities escaped the Illini. North Florida was in control for the majority of this game, but there were two crucial moments when the Illini had a chance to change the outlook. The Ospreys scorched the nets during the first seven-plus minutes, which gave them a 22-13 lead. However, they then reached a six-minute stretch when they converted just one field goal. It was a great opportunity for the Illini, but they could only cut the lead by two during that time frame before North Florida hit three triples on the next four possessions. Illinois was in another key spot in the second half during the middle of a 22-8 run, which shrunk North Florida's lead from 23 to nine. The crowd came alive and the Illini were surging back after an and-one flush by Thorne. But Coleman-Lands fouled Trent Mackey beyond the arc, which led to a four-point play. The Illini didn't cut it below single digits the rest of the game.

Alex Austin and Maverick Morgan showed some value. Heading into the season, Austin and Morgan were thought to be the last guys off the bench. But they challenged those in front of them in the rotation on Friday night. Austin played 21 minutes, and while he missed his only shot attempt, he recorded five rebounds and proved to be an upgrade at the defensive end. Groce said it was obvious that Austin was more in tuned defensively than his inexperienced freshmen. Aaron Jordan did provide a nice offensive boost with 14 points, although six of those came on threes in the final minute. As for Morgan, he was able to utilize his size and convert on close-range attempts. He finished with six points in seven minutes, and he also added a block and a steal. Morgan looked far more serviceable at the five than Michael Finke, who played just five minutes on Friday. Rebounding and defense continue to be big weaknesses for Finke, and he hasn't looked all that comfortable offensively either.

Injuries still hampering the Illini. Sophomore forward Leron Black took part in some of the pregame warmups, but it was apparent that he was not moving like his usual self. Groce said that Black has been experiencing soreness and swelling in his knee, as he is just five weeks removed from surgery on his meniscus. Groce added that Black participated mostly in a non-contact setting in practice this past week. The Illini are still hopeful that he will be back soon, and it would be huge for him to return next week at Providence. Unfortunately, the injury list grew on Friday as well. Tate suffered an open dislocation on his right hand. Tate left the game immediately and returned to Champaign for an X-ray and cleaning. That will likely leave the Illini without three of their starters (Tate, Nunn and Black) against North Dakota State on Sunday. Groce said that Hill will take on some of the point guard responsibilities in Tate's absence.

Illini fans growing impatient. Don't leave it up to Illinois fans to accept mediocrity, and they shouldn't. There is no masking the fact that the Illini have lost four straight games by an average of 14 points dating back to last season. Even given unfortunate circumstances, fans don't want to see home losses to mid-major programs. Unfortunately, that is what they witnessed. Last season is its own separate entity, but as for Friday's game, it was a bad mix of factors. The Illini started a pair of freshmen, and relied on another who has only practiced for little over a week. On the other side, you see an experienced team that knows how to play together. The Illini are lacking defensively at this point, and they played one of the best jump-shooting teams in the country. The Illini are banged up, and while the non-conference schedule sets up for some chances at quality wins, this is a tough time to face those kind of tests. But as Groce has said many times, you have to play the hand you're dealt. No one is closing up shop on the season after one game, but the Illini have to find answers. If it wasn't obvious before, much of the fan base needs reassuring of this program's direction.


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