Patterns emerge for Illinois basketball in early-season games

The Illini will play their first and only exhibition game Friday when they face Quincy University at State Farm Center. Including Friday’s game, the Illini will play five straight home games before hitting the road for a Thanksgiving tournament in Las Vegas.

Illinois will win on Friday, and they’ll win their first four regular season games as well. Division II Quincy will be no match for the Illini, and the four November home games against weak opponents are nothing but tune-ups for tougher competition that awaits.

But don’t let anyone tell you these first few games aren’t important.

These tune-ups will give fans a look at the team in action and an idea of what might be in store for the rest of the season. But more importantly, they give head coach John Groce a blueprint for how to attack the more rigorous portions of the nonconference schedule and beyond.

Illinois will (hopefully) have large leads in the first five games at State Farm Center, allowing Groce to be more flexible with his lineups. He’ll be able to gauge which players are grasping the offense and who needs more work in practice. It’s one thing to work on offensive sets and defensive principles against your own teammates in practice, and another to execute them against actual live opponents. The cupcake games should show who is ready to compete.

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One of the more disturbing trends we can take away from Groce’s first two seasons in Champaign has been the inability to put away inferior teams. In his first season, it seemed that Groce’s three-pointer-oriented offensive scheme lacked the consistency to blow out weaker teams on a regular basis. This was apparent in games against teams like Gardner-Webb, Western Carolina and Norfolk State, against whom the Illini pulled out uncomfortable home wins.

Last season, Groce’s team simply lacked the firepower to overwhelm many inferior teams — games against IPFW, Dartmouth and UIC come to mind — and was forced to grind its way to several ugly victories. Once again, the Illini’s flaws were exposed early in the year.

Those too-close-for-comfort contests should have been huge warning signs that Illinois would struggle in Big Ten play. This year, the Illini look to have enough outside shooting, talent and consistency to get by inferior opponents with more lopsided results than the last two seasons have shown. If they toil for a third straight year with the small-conference directional schools, be prepared for another inconsistent year in conference play. The good news is, with the personnel they currently have, this Illini team should have an easier time coasting against weaker opponents this season.

The good news doesn’t end there. Last Sunday, Illinois participated in a “secret scrimmage” with Dayton at a neutral site in Indianapolis. Though the event was closed to fans and media, multiple sources informed me that the Illini outplayed the Flyers and won the scrimmage portion of the event by several points.

Though details about secret scrimmages are usually scarce, it’s encouraging that Illinois was able to get the best of a Dayton team that reached the Elite Eight last year. Getting the chance to face tough competition before the season begins can only be a valuable experience for an Illini squad that will face more than its share of challenges as the season goes on.

So enjoy the exhibition game on Friday and the four home games after that. Many fans wait until the marquee games to truly pay attention, but you can learn a lot about the team from these early-season games. The Illini will win these games.It will be how they win that will serve as a good indicator for how the season could go.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.