As Illini hoops season nears, some preseason takeaways can prove valuable

By Alex Roux

State Farm Center is coming along.

One month away from its almost-but-not-totally-finished grand opening for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge between Illinois and Notre Dame, shiny new facades and a retreat of construction equipment has the home of Illini hoops looking like an actual arena again.

At least for me, the ongoing renovation has given these last two preseasons a strange feel. I’m used to the Orange and Blue Scrimmage preceding two home exhibition games before we get to the real stuff, but that hasn’t been possible this year and last. Without that excessive amount of preseason hoops, I haven’t been able to completely shift gears into basketball mode.

Instead, the last two season schedules have featured a limited-access scrimmage at Ubben Practice Facility, a “secret scrimmage” closed to the public, then one home exhibition game before the season gets underway.

These low-stakes affairs have sort of masked the fact that the Illini have an actual road game against Providence — a pretty good team — in two weeks. Two weeks. And no one has much of an idea what this Illinois team is capable of at this point.

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The first regular season game is Nov. 13 against North Floridajo in Springfield, and North Dakota State — who will be no pushover — will visit the state capital two days later. Two tune-ups against real competition is all that’s standing in the way between Illinois and Providence’s Kris Dunn, jowho is widely regarded as one of the best players in the country.

Scrimmages and exhibitions usually aren’t very good indicators of what’s to come, especially for a team battling injuries like Illinois. But there are a couple takeaways from last weekend’s secret scrimmage and things to look for in this Sunday’s lone exhibition game against Illinois-Springfield that can give us some indicators of how the Illini might fare as a shorthanded squad.

Illinois’ second secret scrimmage in as many years was played in Indianapolis this past Sunday, as the Illini took on a Xavier team that made the Sweet Sixteen last year. Illinois lost by seven to the Musketeers, and the only rational response to that outcome from fans should be a shrug. Coaches treat these scrimmages more like practice, regularly manipulating lineups, scenarios, plays and even the clock in ways we’ll never see during the actual season. It’s more meaningful to look at which players performed.

According to multiple reports, Malcolm Hill led the way for Illinois with 20 points. It’s good to see that he can put up a dub against a solid opponent with less scoring help around him, since he’ll have to do that a lot if the Illini want to avoid any early-season embarrassments.

Senior transfer Mike Thorne Jr. showed his sturdy performance in the paint at the ILLINI ALL-IN scrimmage was no fluke. He reached double digits in points, and junior point guard Jaylon Tate had double-digit assists with 11. All three freshmen in the lineup — Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams and redshirt Michael Finke — cracked the scoring column as well.

Jalen Coleman-Lands, Illinois’ injured and highest-rated freshman, did not play against Xavier as he continues to recover from a stress fracture in his leg. Illinois head coach John Groce said last month that Coleman-Lands might not miss any games, but he still hasn’t returned to full participation in practice. I’d be very surprised to see him in Sunday’s exhibition game.

With Coleman-Lands, Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black all sidelined, Finke and the other freshmen will have to help Hill and Thorne fill the scoring column again against Illinois-Springfield while Groce evaluates who is truly ready to contribute. Illinois-Springfield is a Division II team, which means Illinois, depleted roster or not, should crush them.

Sunday will be our first real chance to watch the 2015-16 Illini compete, and their last chance to tune up before the games count for real.

Alex is a senior in [email protected]?@aroux94