CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini hoops season opener had a much different feel, setting and result one year removed from their loss to North Florida in Springfield -- as they took care of business 81-62 against SEMO on Friday night at the State Farm Center.
After a slow start that saw Illinois down 25-18 with less than eight minutes to go until halftime, John Groce's squad rebounded with a 27-to-6 run and never looked back.
"I thought we did some good things. We took another step in the right direction. We still have a long way to go," Groce said.
Illini senior Malcolm Hill led the team with 21 points and eight rebounds in what had the makings of an off-game from him -- going more than 17 minutes without a field goal to start the game. Veteran big man Maverick Morgan continued his stellar play with 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting from the field.
Here are five takeaways from opening night.
Mav is one of Illinois' best
Hill is the one you'll find on the Naismith Award watch list, but Morgan has been Illinois' best player the three times they've taken the court in the last few weeks. He's confident. He's efficient. And he's been pretty darn impressive.
Yes, it's important to hold some judgements until the Illini play a team that has a big guy taller than 6-foot-9. But Morgan built some momentum down the stretch of Big Ten play last year, and he's carried that over as an even better player.
When Hill has struggled to be the tone-setter that he is expected to be offensively, Morgan has been essentially a go-to bucket when Illinois needs it in the paint. He did it in a variety of ways on Friday. When they didn't guard him at the top of the key, Morgan took a dribble in and hit a jumper just above the free-throw line.
He will be challenged at a much higher level down the road, but building confidence and getting this kind of response from the senior big guy is a great sign. And there's no doubt the starting five-spot is his to lose, while Mike Thorne Jr. continues to shake off some rust. Who would have thought?
D.J. Williams showed flashes
Illini fans can go ahead and start calling him 'Flash'. He's far from a finished product and he has some time before some major weight is put on his shoulders, but sophomore forward D.J. Williams will show you glimpses of his talent.
He put that on display in small spurts as a freshman, and he came to play in the first game of his second go-around. Williams finished with six points, four rebounds, an assist and a block in 18 minutes.
He slashed to the hoop on some baseline cuts to finish with his athleticism. He played hard. He did what they Illini want him to do in his role, which could expand if he shows up on a consistent basis.
"I thought his motor really ran. I thought he was active on the glass," Groce said. "I thought he had great awareness in the zone. I thought he played unselfishly. And obviously, he had some good finishes for us in and around the rim."
One of Williams' best plays was when he got the ball on a baseline cut and saw Jalen Coleman-Lands open in the corner in full stride. In the air, he threw a pass out to the sniper for a three-ball. Williams doesn't lack skill in the slightest -- or length or athleticism.
He is often forgotten, but he is an important player for the future and he can raise Illinois' ceiling this year if things start to click.
Defense has to be better
Can Illinois be a good defensive team? That has been the recurring question, and it still goes without an affirmative answer after Friday night's outing.
The Illini allowed SEMO to start the game 7-of-11 from the field, which was aided by a lack of resistance against dribble penetration. Part of that was a result of SEMO's smaller lineup blowing past Illinois' frontcourt. The Illini responded by going zone, which had some better success -- especially in the first half.
"Defensively, we've still got to get better. Certainly thought the zone was a little bit better than our man today, although our man picked up -- got us some key stops there in the second half," Groce said. "Thought it was porous early and then we got better as the game went on."
Illinois also gave up too many threes, as the Redhawks hit 10 of their 24 attempts. That's not an improvement from last season's 38.6 percent allowed from deep, which was worse than any other high-major team in the country.
Illini point guard Tracy Abrams said his team knows the importance of improving at that end of the floor.
"I feel like we're going to keep trying to get better every day on defense. We understand that defense wins games," Abrams said. "So we know every day -- no matter the outcome of the game -- our main focus is how can we get better defensively."
A point guard that can score
Illini fans had to be thinking it: Isn't it refreshing to see an Illinois point guard that can score it? You know, one that can actually hit the open three in the corner when the defense sags?
That's what Abrams was able to do on Friday night. It's no secret that his main roles are to facilitate and play defense. But he stepped up and hit three of his four three-point attempts as part of his 13-point outing.
When's the last time an Illini point guard had at least 13 points? Feb. 28, 2015 when Ahmad Starks had 17 points against Northwestern. It's been a little while.
Last year, Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis combined for 5.8 points per game, while going 36.9 percent from the field and 8-of-35 from three-point land. Abrams is still just a 27.7 percent three-point shooter in his collegiate career, but he has worked hard to improve that aspect of his game. And he is a guy that is at least capable of making you pay when you cheat too hard off of him.
More Te'Jon, please
Groce elected to use Abrams and Tate quite a bit in unison on Friday night.
"Those guys did well tonight. They did a lot of good things for us. They know each other like the back of their hand," Groce said. "I thought they had some good chemistry tonight."
As Groce later noted, it made sense to have multiple ball-handlers on the court with SEMO's small lineup and pressure defense. He decided to go with the combo that he trusts the most.
Many Illini fans don't have the same level of trust as Groce does in Tate. The senior point guard played 25 minutes with two points (1-4), six assists and three turnovers. He has been notorious for having a very good assist-to-turnover ratio in nonconference play. He's also been notorious for being a flat out awful shooter of the basketball.
Both held true in the opener. Tate is the type of player who is who he is. He made some good passes. He knows the system. But he also shanked some three-point attempts and the ball stuck in his hands on a few occasions.
The bottom line is that fans want to see more of freshman playmaker Te'Jon Lucas, and they have an argument. Lucas played for just 17 seconds of garbage time. Tate is not 24 and a half minutes better than Lucas.
Groce knows his team better than anyone. It's rational to think that he has more trust in a player who's on his fourth year in the program than his first. But the point remains. Tate often does not look like a high-major point guard, and Lucas is talented.
Illinois led by at least 15 for the final 10 minutes of the game. Give the young man some more tick.