Five takeaways from Illini exhibition vs. Wash U

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' 82-75 win against Wash U in Sunday's exhibition game.

CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini victory over Wash U in Sunday's exhibition game wasn't exactly the slam dunk you'd expect for a Big Ten team against a D-III opponent, as the home squad won 82-75.

That final score came after Illinois held a 29-point lead with 9:33 left in the game.

"All in all, I just thought they were tougher for the majority of the game. I thought we've got to toughen up," Illini head coach John Groce said. "We got to have a little bit more junkyard dog in us when you're up by 29. I didn't like that."

What Groce does like is that this game is part of the preseason, and there are things that can be learned from the first chance to play against someone else.

"It's going to give us an opportunity tomorrow. We'll come in. We'll clean it up. Take a look at it," he said. "See where we can get better heading into Friday's exhibition game against Lewis."

What should be learned from this game? Here are five takeaways.

1. Knocking off rust

Synchronization was the word of the day when Groce spoke last Friday heading into this contest. He knew that he needed to see more.

"I don't think we're anywhere even close to where we need to be right now in terms of synchronization," Groce said.

He was right. The Illini made too many mistakes at both ends of the floor. They turned it over 20 times. They gave up too many easy baskets. The ball movement and offensive flow weren't exactly clean and crisp.

Illinois big man Mike Thorne Jr. had a rough time doing much right. He was called for an offensive foul five seconds after checking into the game. And he didn't exactly even check in all that smoothly as he ran right past the scorer's table. Thorne fouled out and he had four turnovers.

But the big fella hadn't played in a game since January, and he's been restricted in practice at times for "preventative" reasons, according to Groce.

Speaking of practice restrictions, Jalen Coleman-Lands has barely been back since being cleared from his fractured hand. The sharpshooter wasn't sharp on Sunday, as he went just 1-of-6 from three and missed three free throws. Not normal.

"I knew it was going to take a little bit of time," Groce said about those guys working back into form.

The same can be said of Tracy Abrams, who played his first organized basketball game since March 2014. Abrams knocked down a three, and he also had four assists without a turnover. He was the only player on Illinois to play more than a minute and not turn the ball over.

But Abrams was just 1-of-6 from the field, and he missed an easy one at the rim.

"He'll get more and more comfortable. I thought he had some good looks that he didn't knock down. He had a layup -- we missed three layups in the first half -- he had one of them," Groce said. "He had a couple other jump-shot looks that were really good (and) clean that he had been making in practice. That stuff will come."

This team has plenty of experience on paper. They're one of the oldest teams in the country. But in terms of experience as a cohesive unit, they are a work in progress. And Sunday showed that they have work to do and rust to knock off. This is the time to do it.

2. Long way to go defensively

The Illini offense is going to be fine. Turning the ball over 20 times is alarming, but that will be cleared up. Shooting 17.6 percent from three and blowing layups is bad. But this team is going to make shots.

There's too much talent on offense to expect anything different. But defense is an entirely different story. Will Illinois be better at that end than what they showed on Sunday? Yes. But will they be good enough against quality opponents? That has yet to be seen.

In terms of effective field goal percentage defense, three-point field goal percentage defense and block percentage, Illinois had the worst high-major defense in the country last season -- per the KenPom rankings. On Sunday, the Illini allowed a far inferior opponent athletically, skillfully and height-wise to shoot 46.8 percent from the field with 38 points in the paint.

Illinois got bigger and stronger in the offseason. They added more depth. Freshmen matured into sophomores. But there are still major issues at that end.

The Illini don't have a rim protector. Maverick Morgan had two blocks, which is all Illinois had in that area. Wash U has no one taller than 6-foot-9 on their roster.

There are shot-makers on this roster. But Michael Finke isn't a good defender, and he got beat a few times on Sunday. Coleman-Lands has active hands, but defense isn't his strong suit. Malcolm Hill can wow you on offense, but he's no defensive specialist.

That being said, Illinois feels like they have what it takes to get the job done at that end. They had a stretch where they racked up stops, but they also gave up an 18-1 run late.

Groce said it was more about what was going on upstairs than anything else.

"It's mindset. You've got to have more dog," Groce said. "We didn't have that. We're going to try to find some guys that have that."

3. Morgan and Finke were bright spots

Groce wants to throw the ball down inside as much as possible. That is where he wants to run his offense through, and it showed from the very beginning. On Illinois' first possession, Abrams passed to Hill and he dumped it down to Morgan for a quick score.

Morgan finished with a team-high 20 points, while going 8-of-10 from the field. He was highly efficient with his scoring last season, while shooting higher than 56 percent from the field. More of the same is expected this season.

And afterwards, Groce said he actually wanted to see more paint touches.

"Obviously, we've got some guys that are gifted down there," he said. "We've got about five or six guys who can really do some things down there. So we want to try to get the ball to them in areas where they can do something with it productive for our team."

The Illini showed their 'Horns offense' early in the game with two bigs lined up near the arc. This allows for many variations of action, including some high-low looks. That suits this frontcourt very well with Morgan and Thorne's down-low ability, while guys like Finke, Leron Black and Hill can hit the mid-range jumper or go down in the paint themselves.

Finke made some plays on Sunday. He finished with 13 points and two assists. The redshirt sophomore threw down a pair of slams and he hit a three. He also showcased his vision and passing ability.

Morgan and Finke were the biggest offensive bright spots, although seven combined turnovers is far too many.

4. 'No dog, no kill'

Those were the words uttered by Groce to his bench late in the game, while Wash U was on their way to climbing back within single digits.

Groce wants his team to be tough. Getting back to the roots of TNT. He wants his team to finish.

"We're going to start and finish fights," Groce said at a practice during the coaches clinic earlier this month.

Well, the Illini didn't look like a team that wanted to fight for 40 minutes. They went through the motions during the first 15 minutes. Then, they got the lead that they wanted. And after that, they appeared to mentally check out.

Competitors want to beat you down every second you're lined up across from them. They don't want a D-III team taking pictures on the court after the game with smiles because they came close. Even if the game doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

There's an attitude and a swagger that Groce wants back in his program. But his team has to live it instead of just talk about it.

5. It's a game that doesn't count

Ultimately, that is the bottom-line conclusion from Sunday's exhibition.

It was ugly for a good portion. Some good things came of it. You learn and move on.

This Illini team isn't the first squad with high hopes for the season to play less-than-desirable basketball in an exhibition game.

Syracuse lost an exhibition game to Le Moyne (D-II) in 2009 before reeling off 13 straight wins to start the season, and they ended their year in the Sweet Sixteen -- a place Illinois hasn't been in more than a decade. Michigan State lost an exhibition game to Grand Valley State in 2007. Where did they end up? The Sweet Sixteen.

No season projections should change. No panic button should be hit.

The first of two dress rehearsals is over, and there's still 12 days until the real show begins. Let's save the real judgements until then.


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