It's that time of year when Illini nation is itching for hoops season to get underway, and its arrival will get one step closer on Sunday with Illinois' exhibition game against Washington University.
Anticipation is high within John Groce's program, as they await what is expected to be a success-filled season. The team has been battling each other hard in practice working towards the season opener on Nov. 11.
Sunday will be a welcomed change from that with the opportunity to compete as a unit. Illini big man Mike Thorne Jr., who is getting ready to play for the first time at the State Farm Center, said it best on Friday.
"I'm ready to play against other people now," he said.
From Groce's perspective, he is looking at it as an chance to improve and get more in sync.
"Just want to continue to get better. I don't think we're anywhere even close to where we need to be right now in terms of synchronization. And it's not because of a lack of effort or attitudes. Those have been terrific," Groce said on Friday. "We just got to play together more, get guys used to playing with each other, understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses. And we're getting closer."
He also noted that this exhibition game will be used to tinker with his rotation.
"We do have lineups that, on purpose, we're going to play. We have certain guys and combinations together. It's a time for us to learn. It's a time for us to grow," Groce said. "We'll put combinations together that we want to see, that we want to evaluate before Nov. 11."
Here are some more things to watch heading into Sunday.
1. No street clothes for Abrams
After two seasons of jeans and button-up shirts, sixth-year senior point guard Tracy Abrams will finally get to put on the Illinois uniform and run out on the court at the State Farm Center. The Illini sorely missed his leadership, toughness and experience during his extensive absence. Now, they have him back and ready to go.
Of course, the question is: How will he look? At media day, Groce said that Abrams' speed and strength numbers are higher now than before either one of his previous injuries. Abrams' play in practice indicates that. While there were outside concerns about his lateral quickness and durability, Abrams has complete freedom of movement and he appears to be well-conditioned.
Abrams has looked pretty good at the defensive end. Offensively, there's no question that his savvy helps in a big way. And he can consistently make plays, which couldn't be said about Illinois' point guards last season. Abrams has worked on his jumper, but that still isn't a strong part of his game. He is capable of hitting the outside shot, though. Point guard play will be crucial for the Illini this year, and it's time to see what Abrams can do.
2. Post rotation
Arguably the biggest luxuries to the Illini roster this season is their post depth and versatility. It changes the game at the offensive end, while taking a considerable amount of pressure off of Malcolm Hill's shoulders -- which will only allow him to be better. Thorne is a huge part of that, and his return should not be understated.
That is why Groce has greatly emphasized getting the ball in the post this preseason. Thorne has a very good back-to-the-basket game with the ability to power dribble and put up a hook with either hand. Maverick Morgan proved to be a very efficient scorer last season as well. It will be interesting to watch how Groce rotates the pair at the five spot, and which route he goes with minutes allocation.
Furthermore, the Illini have Michael Finke at the four -- and they will have Leron Black after he serves his six-game suspension. Scheming-wise, that has allowed Groce to do some different things. For example, he's implemented offensive sets that utilize the high-low. Overall, the depth and versatility are huge bonuses.
"It gives us a dimension on a consistent basis that we haven't had really the first four years," Groce said.
But in the immediate future, Illinois will be without Black. They will also be without Kipper Nichols for the first semester, and he has been playing exclusively at the four in practice. In the meantime, you may see Hill play some more four during Black's absence. It is also important to note that Finke's play with Thorne during that time will dictate the usage of certain combinations, and who will ultimately be the starting four.
3. JCL usage
Groce said on Friday that no player on the roster is physically limited from game action. That had to be nice for his own ears to hear.
"We can play everybody today as much as we'd want to play them," he said.
He went on to say that he has kept things in perspective, and it's very possible that he will ration back minutes for certain guys in this situation. Of course, that brings Jalen Coleman-Lands to mind, who has been 'full-go' for less than a week after recovering from a fractured shooting hand. Coleman-Lands looked good in practice on Tuesday, and Groce has been encouraged by what he's seen from him this week.
"Offensively, shooting the basketball is kind of like riding a bike. Every time he lets it go, we think it's going in. He has made a lot of them over the three or four days at a high percentage," Groce said. "It's some other things: Spacing on offense, learning when to help, when not to help on defense. Some of those instincts that -- he hasn't play full-go in a little while -- that will come with time."
You will see Coleman-Lands out on the court on Sunday, and getting back into the flow of the game will be important for him heading into the opener.
4. Te'Jon introduction
Freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas hasn't played in a game -- real or exhibition -- since he broke his ankle in Champaign against Centennial back in February. Now, he will get the chance to change that. Lucas was cleared for all basketball activity on Oct. 3, and he is working to compete for backup minutes behind Abrams.
Groce was very complimentary of Lucas on Friday in terms of his progress, toughness and positive attitude. Lucas made some nice plays during the scrimmage sessions at practice on Tuesday, which showcased his outstanding court vision and passing ability.
This is an important time for Lucas to continue to learn and grow. He is capable of contributing this season if he can do that at a fast pace, despite missing some crucial time over the summer.
Lucas has been beloved by the Illini fan base since he committed last fall -- being that it came at a time when it seemed somehow impossible for Illinois to land a quality point guard. Well, here is their chance to see him.
5. AJ & D.J.
The Illini will rely on sophomores Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams to make significant strides in Year Two as backups on the wing. Nichols is out for the first semester, and even then, he's not practicing at the two or three -- which are far bigger positions of need than the four.
And no offense to Alex Austin, but it is in Illinois' best interest if the walk-on plays typical walk-on minutes. Plain and simple, Jordan and Williams have to be better than last season. Groce said on Friday he thinks they are.
"I think they've gotten a lot better. Their bodies have gotten stronger. They're in better shape," he said. "They're better."
First and foremost, you'd expect them to be much improved defensively. Being stronger and knowing the system can be cures for past mistakes. You want them to make impacts in other areas too. Jordan is capable of being a knock-down shooter on the perimeter. Williams has a combination of length and skill that makes him versatile, and he showed flashes of production last year.
For Illinois to be a complete team, these guys need to step up. And early action like this is a great opportunity to build confidence and get the ball rolling.