Illinois 82, Wash U 75
CHAMPAIGN - John Groce said he want to see "synchronization" from his team in Sunday's exhibition opener. The Illinois head coach didn't see it for very long as it coasted to a narrow win over Division-III Washington University (St. Louis) in the first game in the fully-renovated State Farm Center.
The Bears claimed a 24-17 lead on a sloppy, disjointed Illini bunch that struggled to make open shots and defend a much smaller and way less athletic team.
But the Illini eventually found their rhythm -- at least temporarily -- for a dominant 39-6 run during an 11-minute, 53-second stretch that ran from the 6:48 mark of the first half to the 14:55 mark of the second half. The Illini claimed a 29-point lead, 65-36, with 11:39 left.
But there will be plenty of teachable moments for the Illini after Wash U rolled off an 18-1 run late in the second half and force an angry Groce to call timeout with 5:17 left. Wash U eventually cut the deficit to single digits with under a minute remaining.
Groce told his bench: "No dog, no kill."
Illinois scored 29 points off of 26 Wash U turnovers, but Illinois was nearly just as sloppy, committing 20 turnovers -- which the Bears turned into 27 points.
Illinois shot 43 percent from the field, including 3-for-17 from three. The Illini went 25-for-37 (68 percent) from the free-throw line. The Bears also out-rebounded Illinois 38-36.
In his first game in an Illini uniform in 31 months, sixth-year senior point guard Tracy Abrams finished with five points (1-for-6 FG), four assists and zero turnovers.
Leron Black did not play as he served his first game of six-game suspension after pleading guilty this spring to a misdemeanor aggravated assault charge. He will return for the Nov. 21 game against Winthrop.
Kipper Nichols did not play and will not be eligibile until afterthe first semester concludes, due to NCAA transfer rules. The Tulane transfer, who should be able to play in the Dec. 17 game against BYU at the United Center in Chicago, worked out on the court before the game.
What it means
This is why they play exhibitions, kids -- to find a rhythm. Due to injuries, this full Illini team has barely played together, and that continued Sunday with Nichols and Black out. This experience hopefully will help them gain that continuity and find their identity. The Illini looked good for 12 minutes and terrible for 28.
What went right
Abrams' return to the court was the highlight of the day. He spent a whole year grinding to return from a torn ACL suffered before the 2013-14 season, only to suffer a torn Achilles which held him out the 2014-15 season. the crowd cheered louder for his starting lineup introduction and his made three than at any other point of the exhibition -- and it was deserved.
The Illini got to the free-throw line early and often, a sign of their aggression -- and physical superiority over Wash U.
Illinois did a good job of feeding their bigs, which is a priority with one of the deepest post rotations in the Big Ten. Morgan especially stood out. He looks just as skilled as ever (that side-pocket jumper is near automatic) and is much stronger in the post. He also looks like a much better defender due to improved positioning.
The forgotten man, senior point guard Jaylon Tate, had five assists to zero turnovers.
What went wrong
The Illini started and ended the game in coast mode -- like they were playing a Division III team in an exhibition game. The Illini were careless with the ball, especially in transition, during the second half, when they committed 16 of their 20 turnovers.
The Illinois offense got the shots it wanted but just couldn't make them -- from inside and out. The Illini missed several open threes -- including sharpshooter Jalen Coleman-Lands -- and especially struggled to finish around the rim early with several players missing close-range shots.
The Illini defense looked bad for most of the game. They struggled to stop the dribble drive, failed to close out on shooters and were beat too easily on the inside. This is the team's biggest concern.
Mike Thorne (six points, four rebounds in 18 minutes) looked really rusty. The Illini big man, who received a sixth-year of eligibility after missing most of last season with a torn meniscus, fouled out and had four turnovers in 10 minutes.
Hill wasn't very assertive until late in the game. The Illini want their best player and senior to continue to develop a mean/killer streak. Though when he did show some flash -- swinging on the rim after a dunk -- he was given a technical foul.
Illinois plays its second and final scrimmage 7 p.m. Friday against Division II Lewis University out of Romeoville, Ill. The game will be streamed on BTN Plus Digital Network, which requires a subscription. The Illini then tip off the regular season on Friday, Nov. 11, against Southeast Missouri State.