Piper: Five things I'm watching for in Illini exhibition vs. Lewis

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper highlights five things he's watching for in Illinois' final exhibition game on Friday.

The Illini have one final dress rehearsal on Friday night against Lewis at the State Farm Center before the games start to count next week.

In what will be a pressure-packed season filled with expectation, every day that approaches the opener brings added anxiety and less patience for Illinois head coach John Groce.

The Orange and Blue won Sunday's exhibition game against Wash U 82-75. There were some positives to take. But also some negatives, including the fact that the Illini went from a 29-point lead with less than 10 minutes to go to a single-digit victory over a D-III opponent.

Overall, Groce -- like most coaches around the country -- is unsatisfied and looking for more.

"I don't think we're very consistent right now," Groce said on Thursday. "Just trying to get consistent really with our toughness. Our effort level, I thought was up and down the other day. I think our execution was the same a little bit."

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1722787-illini-inquirer-tv-h... Groce wants more synchronization. He also wants harder cuts, better screens, more ball movement, fiercer ball pressure and fewer mistakes.

It is a challenge with multiple guys coming back from injury, while having a unit that's getting used to playing together in a game environment. It is still very early, relatively speaking, but every coach wants his team to be able to hit the ground running.

"I've got to be a little bit more patient, probably," Groce said. "I just don't have much of that right now. Trying to get those guys to connect and play together and create a chemistry amongst our group on-court. I think off the court, we're good. But on the court, we've got some work to do there."

Here are five areas to watch heading into Friday's game.

1. Sustained defense

Anybody in the program will tell you that defense is the unparalleled concern right now for this team. The Illini are going to make shots. The question is how much of a factor can they be at the other end of the floor when the opponent is trying to make theirs.

Playing against a less talented and less athletic team on Sunday, Illinois allowed Wash U to shoot 46.8 percent from the field -- including 50 percent during the second half. Wash U also scored 38 points in the paint.

That can't happen. Last year's team was terrible against dribble penetration. They couldn't stop points in the paint. They gave up the three unlike any high-major team out there. But of course, they were extremely injury-stricken.

Not much of an excuse now. The roster isn't filled with defense stoppers, but they've got to figure it out. Illinois' ability to string stops together is probably the main thing to watch on Friday and going forward.

2. JCL rhythm

With just a few full-go practices under his belt, Jalen Coleman-Lands looked off with his shot on Sunday. He was just 1-of-6 from deep, and he also missed three free throws. That's not normal for a dead-eye shooter.

The Illini need him to get as close as possible to returning to form by the opener. He's a crucial piece in the offense, and one of the most lethal outside threats in the country when he's on. Friday's game will be an opportunity to build some rhythm and confidence -- although he's never been short on the confidence side.

While Coleman-Lands' shooting progress is important, Groce said he's more concerned with him getting back into the flow defensively.

"I'm more concerned about his defensive lapses right now. We've got to get him better," Groce said. "The staff is reminding me that he's only practiced for about a week, so he's a little bit behind the other guys. We've got to get him a lot better defensively to where we know we can count on him defensively."

3. Big Mike bounce-back

Mike Thorne Jr. had a rough go on Sunday in his first game atmosphere since January. Thorne fouled out in 18 minutes of action with six points, four rebounds and four turnovers. It's all about knocking the rust off.

Thorne has played well in practice. But playing with the in-game juices at actual game speed with defenders draped on him is something to adjust to, and that's why they play these exhibitions.

"Take a shooter out for six months and we can get him game-shots in practice," Illini assistant Dustin Ford said. "With a guy like Big Mike, he needs to go out there and get hit. Knock that rust off."

Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke were bright spots offensively on Sunday. But with what Thorne can potentially bring as a back-to-the-basket scorer and space-eating rebounder, the frontcourt needs him to get up to speed sooner rather than later.

4. More dog

A junkyard dog doesn't care who or when someone hops on their side of the fence. All they know is: Attack relentlessly. That's the type of mindset that Groce wants to see from his group, but he didn't see nearly enough of it on Sunday.

"I just thought they were tougher for the majority of the game. I thought we've got to toughen up," Groce said. "We got to have a little bit more junkyard dog in us."

The team's bulldog, Tracy Abrams, agreed with that assessment.

"I definitely agree with that. For me, I feel like I could have played a little bit more tougher and gave a little more dog to the guys," Abrams said. "So that's something I know I have to bring and something I have to take pride in."

Accountability from your leader is a good sign. But will the Illini show change in that area on Friday?

"I would hope so. We're going to figure it out one way or the other," Groce said. "I'm going to try to push them and demand as much as I can out of them because I respect them. I'm not going to let them not play to our standards."

5. Finish

That is the final word that is spoken when the Illini break the huddle before every practice. Groce has said that he wants his team to start and finish fights.

Even though it was just an exhibition game, Illinois did not finish on Sunday. Wash U climbed back from 29 down to lose by just seven points. They scored 35 points in the final 10 minutes of the game.

For a team that says "sky is the limit" this year after being pounded into the floor of the Big Ten last season, you'd think they'd want to knock out any team that strolled into their house. Exhibition game or not. That's when your habits show -- when the bright lights aren't on.

Are you going to let your foot off the gas when you feel comfortable? Are you going to 'play the score', as Finke said his team did on Sunday?

The Illini also have to focus on finishing plays. They blew too many layups on Sunday. They've got to finish out possessions at the defensive end. Execute with effort and precision.

There should be more of that on display against Lewis with the countdown to Game 1 getting closer by the day.

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