Five takeaways from Illini exhibition vs. Lewis

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' 95-51 win over Lewis in Friday's exhibition game.

CHAMPAIGN -- Illini head coach John Groce wanted to see more junkyard dog from his group, and they showed some bite on Friday night in a 95-51 thrashing of Lewis in the exhibition contest.

This was the final dress rehearsal before next Friday's season opener against Southeast Missouri State, and Groce was much happier with his team's performance than he was last Sunday against Wash U.

"I thought we did some good thing. I think our effort is what stood out to me," Groce said. "I think we had much more of a defensive mindset. That was the emphasis certainly after last Sunday's game."

"How hard we played, our effort level, our mindset was different."

The result was extremely different as well. Illinois' offense flowed with balance and an uptempo pace. They had six players finish with double figures -- led by Jalen Coleman-Lands with 16 points.

Defense was the big difference. After allowing Wash U to shoot higher than 46 percent on Sunday, the Illini held Lewis to under 32 percent from the field.

Here are five takeaways from the no-nonsense showing by the Illini.

1. Frontcourt flexes strength

The Illini frontcourt is the biggest collective strength of this team, and they put that on display on Friday. Senior big man Maverick Morgan has been the best player on the court during the exhibition contests. Morgan followed up a 20-point outing with 13 points and seven rebounds.

It's hard to believe this is the same big man that didn't look like he belonged anywhere close to the Big Ten two seasons ago. But Morgan averaged 12 points and 5.4 rebounds during the last 12 games of last season against Big Ten opponents. He will be a legit big man in the conference this year. Morgan continues to efficient with his scoring opportunities, and he has improved defensively with physical strides in the offseason and maturing with his knowledge of the game.

Michael Finke and Mike Thorne came to play as well. Finke finished with 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds. You can tell the difference with his frame in the paint. And it was great for Illinois to get Thorne back on track after a shaky outing on Sunday. Thorne finished with 12 points in 20 minutes, as he hit all six of his field goal attempts.

As a combined unit, Morgan, Finke and Thorne combined for 38 points and 20 rebounds. That's how you're supposed to play down low against a D-II opponent. They will be a problem for other teams as well, and just wait until Leron Black gets back.

2. Defense shows improvement

Illinois' defensive grade-out on Sunday was pretty awful. They allowed way too many easy hoops. Wash U scored 35 points in the final 10 minutes, which is a pace the Illini hope to never give up against a Big Ten team -- let alone a D-III team.

But the Orange and Blue were much improved on Friday. They pressured the ball and didn't make things easy, especially in the first half. Lewis had just 22 points in the first 20 minutes, including only 10 points in the paint.

There were a few more lapses in the second half, but overall, the Illini played well at that end of the floor. Groce said his team's depth allowed them to turn up the heat.

"Just the fact that we could keep fresh bodies in there allowed us to maintain consistent intensity on the defensive end without wearing down," he said. "We kept guys pretty fresh. I though that allowed us to guard the ball better than we did last week."

3. Turning up the pace

Illinois made it a point of emphasis to get out and run in this game. Groce has always had an uptempo pace as his ideal style of play, and his depth enables him to do that this year.

"We're playing at such a faster speed now than we ever have," Groce said.

The Illini have been below the D-I average of adjusted tempo in all four of Groce's previous seasons, according to the KenPom statistics. That was certainly not the case during his time at Ohio. Now, he can rev up the engines again.

One negative of Illinois' offensive play was their 21 turnovers, as they sometimes got ahead of themselves with the pace. Groce said you may have a Ferrari, but you've got to learn how to drive it.

"I thought we were sloppy a little bit at times," he said.

Cleaning up the turnover numbers will be a big emphasis heading into the opener, as the Illini had 41 of them over the 80 minutes during the two exhibition games. But there's no question that running can make Illinois' offense even more dangerous.

"I feel like running at a faster pace, we put a lot more pressure on the defense -- especially with our personnel," Coleman-Lands said. "We got a lot of people who can drive. We got a lot of people who can shoot."

"We're running at a faster pace and that's something that we're improving on. But we've still got some things we've got to work on with transition and pushing the ball offensively."

4. PG rotation shaping up

Tracy Abrams looks good physically, and he put together a nice outing on Friday night. Abrams finished with 10 points (4-5) with three assists and two steals in 20 minutes. He played with toughness and leadership, while also showing his ability to get into the lane off the bounce.

Jaylon Tate looked good as well. After starting out with four turnovers in his first five minutes -- some not his fault -- Tate went on to post five points with four dimes. He got the nod off the bench to spell Abrams, while freshman Te'Jon Lucas didn't play until halfway into the second half.

Groce was very pleased by this group.

"I thought the communication of those guys -- especially the two older guys -- was off the charts," Groce said. "You could just feel it out there. They were leading themselves. And I expect that."

"I thought they certainly pushed the pace and were communicating, and did a great job of making sure we were connected."

Lucas showed some good flashes against Wash U. But this game was a clear statement of how Groce sees the point guard rotation. Playing at a faster pace sways more towards Tate in the second unit, as the Illini feel he has the best open-court skills of the three.

5. More from Malcolm

On paper, Malcolm Hill put together a pretty good statline against Lewis: 13 points (5-10), seven rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes. But Hill didn't really assert himself in either of the preseason games.

With Illinois' variety of options, Hill doesn't have to carry such a load on his back. And that will play to his advantage. But you still want to see him be aggressive and look to get going. There will be times when the Illini need a spark, and while dumping it down in the paint is a big focus, Hill is still the best player Illinois will put on the court.

Every opposing defense is going to have Hill highlighted at the top of the scouting report. But he has to find ways to make it happen, while still playing within the flow of the offense.

Defensively, Hill needs to be better as well. There have been times when he has taken a lazy swipe at the ball and let his guy go past him. That can't happen.

Picking at little things shows the kind of high standards there are for one of the best players in the Big Ten. It also shows the kind of talent he possesses.

The lllini need more for them to be at their best


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