Illini basketball


The Wash U exhibition was hard to watch. If you didn’t see the game, but feel, based on second-hand accounts that Illinois played badly; I’m here to tell you it was worse.

Illinois stumbled out of the gate with a starting line-up of

  1. Tracy Abrams
  2. Aaron Jordan
  3. Malcolm Hill
  4. Michael Finke
  5. Maverick Morgan

It was heartening to see Abrams return to Lou Henson Court, which wasn’t named Lou Henson Court last time he played a game there. But almost immediately Abrams charged the lane, just like the old days, without looking for kick-out targets on the wings.

Following an off-balance runner that missed (reminiscent of the last-second miss in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament) and a drive to the basket that found him under the goal without an angle (reminiscent of 2014, generally),

Abrams righted himself and looked for others in subsequent transition situations. He found a trailing D.J. Williams for a nifty no-look/behind-the-back bounce pass for a lay-up. He charged toward two defenders under the basket, but then stopped on a dime and bounced the ball around them to Michael Finke, for a dunk.

It’s this version of Tracy Abrams, not the old one, that Illinois must have to be successful.

Mike Thorne Jr. shot 50% (3-for-6) from the floor. That might seem like a respectable percentage, but considering all those shots came from three feet out, it’s unconscionably low. Big Bo still refuses to use the glass, and his touch is no silkier than before. He hoists the ball into the airspace of the orange ring. It goes in half the time. Illini fans will be hugely frustrated by missed inside shots this year.

Thorne missed both ends of his only trip to the foul line. He averaged one foul every three minutes.

On the bright side, Thorne was careful to observe the cylinder rule (described last week by referee Bo Boroski) in wrangling his lone offensive rebound of the contest.

Big Bo played without the enormous knee brace he wears in practice. He dived to the floor for a loose ball, and managed to pull it away from a pack of Bears. It was scary to watch.  But evidently he didn’t break anything.

Te’Jon Lucas can pass, and may be a necessary component to success in 2017.  Unfortunately, his teammates couldn’t catch his passes. So Te’Jon finished the game with a 1-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio.

He didn’t attempt a field goal. He connected on 4-of-6 free-throws.

Tracy Abrams committed zero turnovers.

Michael Finke was fun to watch, despite his three turnovers. His post-entry passes are fun. He’s one of the team’s best shooters and one of the best ball-handlers.

His 4-of-8 FG performance is better than Thorne’s 50% because three of those shots came from beyond the arc. (He made one.)  Finke was perfect from the foul stripe. Abrams and Hill were also perfect from the line, but the team shot 67.6% overall.

Maverick Morgan was the team’s leading scorer. He also tied Thorne’s team-high four turnovers. But his 8-of-10 performance from the floor is closer to what Illini fans should expect from the center position. John Groce talks a lot about paint touches. But once the ball-handlers do the hard work of feeding the low post, Illini fans should expect a field goal most of the time.

Morgan was 4-of-6 from the line, with only 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. He blocked two shots and garnered a steal.

The one obvious advantage of playing Morgan at center, as opposed to Thorne, is the Mav can run in transition.

Jalen Coleman-Lands had a bad night shooting (1-for-6 from deep) but he penetrated well, and moved well without the ball.

Once the medical staff clears him to play without his right-hand wrapped, it’s hard to imagine a starting line-up without him.

But apart from JCL, there’s only one clear starter on this team.

Malcolm Hill had, if you ignore his 4-for-12 (0-for-3) shooting performance, the best stat line. He led the team in rebounds with six, and added a pair of steals and a pair of assists, with only one turnover.

His technical foul was undeserved. Malcolm finished a fast-break dunk at an odd angle, he straightened himself out on the rim before dropping to the floor. Steve McJunkins should not have T’d him up.

Is it crazy to suggest that Tracy Abrams is not a sure fire starter?

Well, recall again the spring of 2014, when John Groce praised Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand for accepting  back-up roles. Groce said the team would need more sacrifice the next year. If Te’Jon Lucas continues to move the ball as effectively as he did Sunday, and if his teammates learn to catch it, it’s not hard to imagine a similar role for Abrams.

Starting is not the be-all, end-all of course.  Jon Ekey continued to play a starter’s role after relinquishing his starting role. John Groce is slightly less hidebound about rotations than was Bruce Weber. But he’s still fairly traditional.

Will Groce change the line-up based on match-ups? That question might be irrelevant, until the Michigan State game. (They’ll be playing small ball, a good match-up for Illinois if you consider a line-up of Finke + four guards.)

Have we seen all the role players yet? Definitely not. Leron Black remains suspended. Kipper Nichols won’t be eligible ’til December. Alex Austin played for three seconds on Sunday. The other walk-ons never stood up, and Cameron Liss will take a redshirt year in 2017.

There’s a lot that remains to be seen. Let’s hope it becomes prettier to look at.