Well. There's no easy way to put this, but it was a tough night to be a Fighting Illini Basketball fan. Illinois allowed North Florida to lead by as many as 23 in a game that was dominated by the visiting Ospreys from tip to finish; Illinois did not lead for one second of the contest. The Ospreys were hot from downtown as they connected on 17 of 33 three point field goal attempts while Illinois managed a mere 5 of 16. Dallas Moore and Beau Beech were the front-runners for the Ospreys as they scored 26 and 25 points respectively.
Illinois couldn't get much going, especially on the defensive end of the floor as they allowed a whopping 93 points on their own court. The Fighting Illini were led by Mike Thorne with 25 points and 14 rebounds. At times, he was the only source of offense as perimeter jump shots would not fall for the Illini. Hill was Illinois' second leading scorer with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Thorne and Hill both posted double-doubles, but the Illini still fell as they failed to get help from the rest of their team. To make matters worse, Jaylon Tate left in the first half with an open dislocation on his finger. Here are some takeaways from Illinois' opening loss.
1. Illinois' Defense Needs to Take a Major Step Up
North Florida shot 52.2% from the floor and 51.5% from behind the three point line en route to scoring 93 points. Illinois' perimeter defense was lackluster as the Illini allowed the Ospreys to do whatever they wanted on the offensive end of the floor. North Florida would penetrate off the dribble, find an open shooter, and knock down 17 three pointers throughout the course of the game.
Illinois' defense needs to wake up if it wants to find any sort of success in the next few games. Each player needs to lock down on defense and allow less space on the perimeter. Too many times were the Illini late to close out, allowing North Florida to absolute light Illinois up from beyond the arc. Defensive efficiency is a must going forward for the Fighting Illini.
2. Illinois Needs to Find It's Shooting Stroke
Shooting just 45.1% from the floor and 31.3% from three, Illinois had a tough time knocking down anything. Shooters who prospered in Illinois' exhibition win struggled all throughout the opener. Jalen Coleman-Lands, who hit 5 three pointers against Illinois-Springfield, hit just 1 three pointer on 3 attempts. Despite putting up 20 points, Malcolm Hill only shot 6-17 from the floor including 1-5 from three.
Illinois did a good job pounding the ball down low, but there is no way they're going to beat red-hot North Florida with just 5 three point field goals. In order to compete in the non-conference slate of their schedule, the Illini need to start scoring from all over the floor. Three pointers help bring a team back into a game, and Illinois was unable to do so as they missed 11 of their 16.
3. Mike Thorne Jr. Was a Bright Spot for Illinois
The graduate transfer Thorne Jr. was an offensive juggernaut for Illinois in its opener. His 25 points and 14 rebounds went hand and hand for most of the game, as he was able to get a lot of second chance points. At the beginning of the second half, they went to Thorne repeatedly in the post, but after North Florida knocked down shot after shot, there was no way Illinois could compete.
Thorne Jr. has the chance to be one of Illinois' best players this year with his ability to get points in the paint. If there are any positive takeaways from this first game, one is that the big man Thorne played a very solid game. As far as the rest of the team goes, there is some work to do. Obviously Illinois struggled and wasn't expecting to lose this contest, but they must move on and try to win the next game. Though this loss hurt, there are some positives to build on and negatives to fix before the next contest.