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

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper highlights five things he's watching for in Illinois' season opener against SEMO.

CHAMPAIGN -- In what has been a wild Signing Day week, the focus now shifts to the hardwood with Illinois' regular season opener on Friday night against Southeast Missouri State at the State Farm Center.

The Illini will hit the ground running with a string of four games in eight days, including another game this weekend against Northern Kentucky on Sunday evening. Illini head coach John Groce gave his squad two days off to start this past week so they can be fresh and focused, and he has liked their response.

"We've had a good week of practice. I feel like we're making a lot of inroads and a lot of progress," Groce said. "Guys are pretty motivated right now and excited about opening weekend."

It all starts with SEMO, which is a team that won just five games all of last season. The Redhawks have nine newcomers, including six JUCO transfers, and they are projected to be a bottom-level D-I team again this year. But Groce sees areas in which they will provide a good challenge on opening night.

"What stands out to me watching film is their pressure man defense, which will be a real challenge for us. One of the things that we're trying to sure up right now is our ability to take care of the basketball at the level that we're certainly all accustomed to. We've done that on a national level for years," Groce said. "They're going to challenge that."

Here are five things to watch when the Illini take the floor on Friday night.

Defensive execution

There are plenty of unknowns for the Illini entering the start of this season, but none is bigger than their defense. They were porous in the first exhibition game against Wash U. Improvements were made last Friday against Lewis.

But it remains to be seen if this is going to be a good defensive team. Last season wasn't really a fair evaluation in any area. But that doesn't change how bad the Illini were at that end. They have to prove that they can lock down defensively and make that a staple of this program once again.

Groce said on Friday that he is still looking for more.

"I think we've been okay. Getting better in that area has got to be important to all of us. I think the team understands that," Groce said. "We're constantly talking about defending with purpose. Executing our system. Executing the little details of our defense at a much higher level than we did last year."

There are reasons to believe the Illini will much better.

"We've got more bodies. We've got a little bit more size. And we've got some healthier guys," Groce said. "That certainly helps our defense."

Time to show it.

Exploit down-low mismatch

Just as Illinois saw in their exhibition games, SEMO does not nearly have the size to compete with the Illini frontcourt. The Redhawks' tallest player is 6-foot-8. Of the 15 players listed on their roster, 11 of them are guards. There is a very good chance they will play four-guard lineups.

That will force Illinois' bigs to guard some more mobile players, but on the other side of the court, they should pound it in the paint.

"That's a big emphasis -- trying to get it down low. They don't have much size," Michael Finke said. "So we're going to try to take advantage of it."

The Illini frontcourt of Finke, Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne Jr. all scored in double figures against a smaller Lewis squad, and they combined for 38 points and 20 rebounds. Simply put: Do more of the same.

Continue adapting to pace

Groce made it a point of emphasis to turn up the pace last Friday, and he wants that to be the norm. Play fast. Use the depth. Have the other team gasping for air.

"I think it allows us the potential of wearing teams down," Groce said.

Pushing the ball at that rate can make the Illini more dangerous offensively as well. They have the ability to spread the floor with a variety of weapons, and utilize veteran point guards Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate in space.

Abrams said on Friday that he likes that tempo.

"Obviously, it's a new pace for us," Abrams said. "I do like that pace. It's good for our team. That pace allows us to let guys play their games and bring different strengths to the table."

Playing fast does result in turnovers, especially when it is new. Illinois had at least 20 turnovers in both of their exhibition games. That is far too many. They need to continue adapting to the pace in a game environment without being careless.

Bench production

Groce has talked at length about his depth, and he wants to be able to dig into his bench with confidence. In order for him to do that, his guys in the second rotation need to be sharp. These early games are a prime opportunity to play a good chunk of minutes and get in a rhythm.

The Illini had 10 guys play double-digit minutes against Lewis last Friday. The opportunity is there for that to continue.

"I do like the fact that we've been able to play with some depth. I think it's helped our speed. I think it's helped our intensity defensively. It's helped our rebounding effort," Groce said. "We want to continue to do that. As long as players earn that, we would like to be a really deep team."

In terms of specific guys, the focus will continue to be on what Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams can add. Their jobs are pretty simple. For Jordan, it's make open threes and play defense. For Williams, it's grab a rebound here and there, put the ball in the hoop off a slash or putback, and defend.

Of course, Illinois fans want to see more of freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas -- who will officially make his debut.

Put it away early

You're playing a team that should be severely overmatched and you have another game in two days. Safe to say it would be best for the Illini to take care of business early and rely on the bench for most of the final 10 minutes.

No need to mess around early on. Groce has talked about his offense in reference to driving a Ferrari. This is an opportunity to rev up the engines and kick it into high-gear early. A smaller burst of that is much more valuable than 40-minute coast.

With the excitement of a long-awaited season finally being here, that shouldn't be a problem.

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