The Illini had many things go right for them on Wednesday night. If you would have told John Groce that Michael Finke would outscore Kris Dunn, he'd love his chances. Illinois executed extremely well against the preseason All-American, as Dunn was held without a field goal during the first 30 minutes of the game. Meanwhile, Groce's freshmen showed up in a big way led by Jalen Coleman Lands with a team-high 17 points and Finke with 12 points and seven rebounds. Finke had six points in the first two games combined, while Dunn was coming off a Russell Westbrook-like night with 32 points, eight steals, six rebounds and five assists. The Illini bench combined for 38 points, and Malcolm Hill left it all on the court with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while playing all 40 minutes. On the flip side, Illinois wasn't able to get any production out of their starting frontcourt and they allowed the Friars to grab 16 offensive rebounds. Providence also got 17 points and 12 rebounds from sophomore forward Ben Bentil, who was just 3-of-14 in the opener. It all made for a nail-biter down the stretch, but the Illini couldn't finish the deal.
The game was there for the taking. Providence led by as many as seven in the early stages of the second half. But the Illini then got eight straight points from Finke to cut it to one. Less than four minutes later, Coleman-Lands began a surge with a trio of threes during a seven-possession span. The third one gave Illinois its largest lead of the game, as they were up 57-54 with 6:06 left on the clock. But the Illini went just 1-of-12 from the field after that, and Coleman-Lands didn't shoot any of those 12 shots. Illinois struggled to execute offensively in the closing minutes, as Providence kept them passing the ball back and forth on the perimeter for a stretch of consecutive possessions. But Hill was able to hit a jumper to tie the game at 59 with just over a minute to play. The Illini then had an opportunity to regain the lead after Providence made just one free throw at the line, but they didn't get the ball to one of their offensive playmakers. Instead, it was left for Khalid Lewis to dribble on the outside and Alex Austin got blocked on a drive to the hoop. Providence gave Illinois another chance after missing both free throws at the other end. The Illini had three shots at the win, but Hill's layup, Finke's tip-slam attempt and Hill three-point heave all hit rim but no nylon.
This one didn't follow the script. Wednesday night's clash seemed like an easy one to tab for the experts. Dunn was prime to feast on the Illini defense, which had not shown the ability contain the dribble drive. They gave up 93 points against North Florida, so it seemed only right that one of the nation's best players would have a big night. On the other side, the Illini looked to have a big advantage in the paint. Mike Thorne Jr. posted back-to-back outings of 20-plus points in the first two games, and Providence struggled down low in their opener against Harvard. In addition, the Illini had Leron Black back in the starting lineup after looking good in practice this week. But the perceived focal points of this game did not play out as such. Dunn had just 10 points, as the Illini stymied him with a mix of zone and man-to-man looks. Black and Thorne's performances (of lack thereof) were equally as surprising. The starting big men combined to play 17 minutes and totaled nine fouls, three turnovers, two rebounds and no points.
Illini freshmen display their promise. Groce will not be fond of the end result, but this is a game where his young pieces showed what lies ahead. As Bill Rafferty said on the FOX Sports 1 broadcast, Coleman-Lands is as good as advertised. He came in as the highest ranked freshman guard in the Big Ten, and he is living up to that billing. His confidence and shotmaking ability have allowed him to provide instant offense. Coleman-Lands' outside stroke is as pure as it gets, and just wait until he's had a full month of practice under his belt. He is going to be special down the road for the Orange and Blue. Illinois fans also got to see Finke have his coming-out party in a big game. The Champaign native gave Illini nation a taste of what they've been waiting for after redshirting last season. Finke showcased his offensive skill, which is highlighted by his smooth stroke and passing ability. He also showed up on the glass with seven rebounds, including three offensive boards.
Time for a change at point guard? Lewis made his second consecutive start at point guard, but his impact was minimal. The Illini felt better with Austin on Dunn in one-on-one matchups, and Lewis continues to be limited at the offensive end. He finished with two points on 1-of-5 shooting, and he had two assists and two turnovers. For the season, Lewis is 3-of-10 from the field with six assists and five turnovers. Illini fans cringe at the thought of yet another offensively-challenged playmaker. Hill has played some point guard in Jaylon Tate's absence. He had three assists and two turnovers to go along with his double-double. Hill will get more comfortable with the position as time goes on, and it may be time for him to start at the one. It's too bad Coleman-Lands had to sit most of the offseason or he could have been a candidate to play some point as well. The Illini won't give up on Lewis, and they will probably be forced to play him against quick backcourts. But if Groce wants to put his best five players on the court in the starting lineup, Lewis would not be out there.
Loss hurts but there are still chances for quality wins in the nonconference. Many Illini fans will already have the NCAA tournament crossed off the schedule. The last time Illinois lost two games in November was 2009-10, and Bruce Weber's squad found themselves in the NIT later that year. This team could be destined for a similar road, although a 1-2 start isn't crippling. The Illini still have opportunities for highlight wins over the next two weeks. They will take on UAB in the Emerald Coast Classic next Friday, and a win would match them up with No. 7 Iowa State. After that, Illinois will open up the State Farm Center for an exciting one against No. 18 Notre Dame. It's not out of the question that this team could get hot and reel off some wins in those games. This team is certainly getting better, which is evident in the difference between the blowout opener against North Florida and the oh-so-close defeat on Wednesday night. The Big Ten schedule is really tough, but that will also provide opportunities to build the resume when the Illini are hopefully at full strength.
Illini staff continues to grind out the tough road. Groce and his staff have had one heck of a tough go over the last few months. Each new injury seemed like a test of their sanity. "Why are we the most snake-bitten team in the country" had to be a question in their minds. The Illini were supposed to be an older and experienced team this season with Tracy Abrams (R-SR), Nunn (JR), Hill (JR), Black (SO) and Thorne (GR) in the starting lineup. Instead, Illinois has been forced to lean significantly on their freshmen and a junior walk-on due to injuries. There have been positives with how those guys have responded, and their growth will be expedited over time. Michigan had to rely on young faces last year with their injuries, and they are better for it this season with the depth that has been established. But missing the NCAA tournament was far more acceptable for John Beilein after back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight. The pressure is at another level for Groce, who will have to impress the new AD when that time comes. This season is far from over, but Wednesday was another shot to the heart. Groce and his staff had a great gameplan for Dunn with the mix of 1-3-1 zone, 2-3 zone and man. The Illini freshmen didn't play like freshmen, and they still came up painfully short. With a step back, the game was a sign of progress for this team. That will give Groce some solace after another gut punch.