When it comes to a season opener like this you don't want to take anything you see too seriously. First of all, you're playing an opponent that isn't exactly Indiana or Ohio State. Secondly, it's the first game under a new coach in a new system, and this team is still finding itself.
That being said, I liked what I saw from the Illini on Friday night. It was far from perfect, and you could see that there is still a lot of work to be done on both the offensive and defensive side of the court, but the Illini didn't do anything stupid. The turnovers that dogged this team through the two exhibitions weren't there tonight. There were 12 of them on the night, but they weren't turnovers of stupidity but of aggression.
Which you don't mind seeing nearly as much.
The star of the game was Brandon Paul, who not only chose to be good Brandon Paul tonight, but chose to be awesome Brandon Paul. He finished with 20 points on 15 shots. He also had 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 turnovers. However, he cancelled those turnovers out by also drawing 2 charges on the night. And there was only one three-point shot he took -- that came very early in the first half -- that made me yell "NOOOOOO" while watching.
It was the kind of game from Paul that only causes further frustration at other points during the season when he's being Bad Brandon Paul.
Tracy Abrams was impressive as well. He might not be the ideal fit for John Groce's offense, but I don't think Groce can be all that unhappy with his 13 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds. Though I'd like to see him get to 13 points on less than 11 shots. He also had 3 turnovers, but again, they weren't bad turnovers.
Now, if there's an area for concern, it's that the offense was very reliant on the three-pointer tonight. In fact, the Illini made more threes tonight (13) than they did in any game last season. But they also attempted more threes (30) than in any game last season. In fact, the game wasn't even four minutes old before John Groce yelled at his team to take it to the hole more often.
Though it may have been bad advice. The Illini shot 43.3% (13/30) from beyond the arc and only 36.3% from inside it. The Illini had real trouble finishing at the rim, as well.
Which will be problematic if it continues, because this team isn't going to shoot 43% from three all season long. However, for one night, it was good enough.
-- Nnanna Egwu, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin played a combined 61 minutes tonight and scored 21 points on 9-of-23 shooting. Though the majority of that work was Griffey, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Griffey was aggressive and confident tonight, not hesitating. I hope that continues against teams that aren't Colgate, because it would help. As for Egwu and McLaurin, neither played well on offense but they did combine for 13 boards.
-- D.J. Richardson did not have a good night. He finished with 9 points, with all of them coming on threes. He shot only 25% from the floor and had only 1 assist, though he did grab 7 rebounds.
-- There is a definite eight-man rotation and Groce liked to rotate them. I know he's trying to find the right five, but I can't help but think his constant tinkering with the lineup led to the lack of flow on offense.
-- I liked Devin Langford. Of the players outside the rotation Langford got the most burn with 7 minutes, and I can see what it is that Bruce Weber saw in him. Not only is he long, but holy shit can he jump. He went up for an offensive rebound and if there had to be at least four feet between the bottom of his shoes and the floor when he got the ball.