In the first game of the season at State Farm Center, the Illinois men's basketball team jumped to an early lead in the first half, only to watch it slip away as the second half wore on. The Illini (3-5) couldn't get stops down the stretch as Notre Dame lit up the scoreboard for 51 points in the second half en route to a 84-79 win the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Here's a few nuggets from Wednesday's game.
1. Life without Mike Thorne Jr. is going to be rough
Losing Nnanna Egwu to graduation last season was a huge blow (if you're still one of the folk who thinks Egwu wasn't one of the most valuable or important pieces of last year's team, I can't help you. You're wrong.) and losing Mike Thorne to a torn meniscus after the loss to Iowa State was another huge loss. Illinois' frontcourt essentially has one center (Maverick Morgan) and two true power forwards (Leron Black and Michael Finke) and that's it. Head coach John Groce went small at times with Black or Finke at center and slid swingman Malcolm Hill over to the 4, but this isn't going to hold up in the punishing grind of Big Ten play. As usual, injuries suck and the injury bug hit Illinois at its worst position.
2. More freshmen please
While any NCAA tournament aspirations are already gone by the first week of December, there is a chance to progress and cultivate Illinois' young talent. I'd like to see even more Finke (who dropped 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (14 points while draining a team-high four 3-pointers). I'd like to see even more minutes for Aaron Jordan to see what he can bring to the table. Since the return of Kendrick Nunn, it makes sense that Jordan's tick would be diminished but it's unacceptable that the sharpshooter saw only four minutes of action on Wednesday.
3. Good to be back at SFC
Despite the loss, the renovations at State Farm Center looked magnificent on TV. It was so great to see the Orange Krush stretch all around the court (in some pretty sharp orange tuxedo t-shirts) with Groce and Lou Henson in identical orange blazers. I think I speak for most when I say if the Illini never play in Springfield again, it will still be too soon.
4. B1G FTW
Even with Illinois' loss, Iowa pulled out an overtime win over Florida State to give the Big Ten an 8-6 win in this year's Challenge. The Big Ten hasn't lost the Big Ten/ACC Challenge since 2008.