As a casual fan, it’s easy to write off the early season games as boring or not worth watching due to the talent disparity in the matchups and generally sloppier play compared to regular season action. However, these are valuable opportunities for fans to see the overall talent of the team, play style of this revamped Illini squad, and the player rotation being developed that will likely carry into and through the regular season.
While there has been some of the usual early season sloppiness and miscommunication issues as the players get used to playing with one another, there have been plenty of positive signs with their transition offense and strong defense that should be hallmarks of the team this year.
Exhibition vs. Quincy
The Illini set up their offense with a strong performance on defense, where 25 Quincy turnovers fueled 32 of the 87 Illini points. They play with great speed and anticipation on defense in taking away passing lanes that create opportunities for easy points on the other end. As most Brad Underwood coached teams do, they look most comfortable running out in transition where their speed, handle, and athleticism take over and overwhelm their opponent.
The three-point shooting is still a work in progress, where they only finished a meager 6-of-34 and started 0-for-10, which kept Quincy in it for most of the first half. Given that sharpshooter Luke Goode will be out for the foreseeable future, it remains to be seen how this Illini team will fare with their deep shooting, an area they’ve relied on heavily with their recent run of successful teams.
They look sped up at times both offensively and defensively, trying to push the pace too much to score which created turnovers and easy buckets for Quincy. Recurring struggles with turnovers (14) and shaky free throw shooting (70%) continued through this contest for this new Illini team, an area they will have to continue to work to clean up if they want to repeat as Big Ten champions and make a deeper push in March.
Season Opener vs. EIU
Similar to the Quincy matchup, the Illini came out with great energy, pace, and space, generating turnovers and running lanes to the bucket. However, there was a great deal of sloppiness with turning the ball right back over to the Panthers and giving them easy run outs to the hoop as well.
Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon really stole the show offensively throughout with Hawkins going 5-of-6 from three in the first half and Shannon living at the line racking up 13 of his 24 points from the stripe.
The defense was fierce finishing with 9 blocks and 10 steals. The interchangeable pieces on this defense are just as exciting to watch as it will be painful for coaches to game plan for.
Similar struggles continued to plague the Illini in this one with even poorer free throw shooting (56%) and turnovers (15).
Dainja gave the Illini great minutes and production off the bench with 17 points and 10 rebounds. The freshmen each had good moments and teachable moments as they’re learning to navigate college basketball and find their place on this team.
This was an overall good showing for a team very much learning about itself and who they will be come the start of the regular season.
So what’s next?
When this Illini team cleans up the turnovers and really gets comfortable on the court with one another, look out. This team is filled with fluid athletes that will put constant pressure on opposing defenses with transition offense and talented ballhandlers getting to the rim at will.
If Hawkins and others can replicate solid perimeter shooting efforts, opposing defenses are really going to struggle to figure out a way to defend this team, as they aren’t so dependent on catch and shoot perimeter players and traditional back to the basket post play.
Given the early struggles with rebounding at times and turnovers and free throw shooting generally, this team needs to hone in further on the little details like closing out possessions with box outs, knocking down more free throws, and playing with pace and speed without hurrying itself into careless turnovers for the opposition.
The margins for error are going to get thinner as they move on to play more talented major conference teams, with UCLA and Syracuse on the schedule in the coming weeks, and these points of emphasis will be key for the Illini to come out victorious.