Quality of opening weekend opponents means Illini men's basketball can’t sleepwalk.

By Alex Roux

Last season, Illinois basketball opened its schedule with two games in three days during the first weekend of the season. The Illini’s opponents? Georgia Southern and Coppin State.

The 2015-16 Illini schedule sets up similarly: They open their season with games Friday and Sunday bracketing the upcoming weekend. The main difference between this year’s schedule and last year’s for Illinois is the strength of its opponents.

Georgia Southern put up a fight last year against Illinois and finished the season with a respectable 20 wins. Coppin State didn’t belong on a Division I basketball court. This weekend, North Florida and North Dakota State will visit the Illini’s temporary home at Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, both fresh off 2015 NCAA tournament appearances.

So much for a tune-up game for John Groce’s depleted Illini roster.

Illinois will face North Florida on Friday in the season opener, and the Ospreys return four starters from last year’s tourney team. The Illini will need to lock up Dallas Moore and Beau Beech (a perfect name for an All-Atlantic Sun Conference honoree) who both averaged double figures and shot over 38 percent from three last year.

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Fortunately for Illinois, the injury bug bites both ways. Romelo Banks, North Florida’s starting center, will miss the game with an ankle injury. His absence should help tilt the frontcourt odds back in Illinois’ favor in the event that Illini power forward Leron Black doesn’t play. Groce said Black has a 50-50 chance of returning Friday from his torn meniscus.

North Florida will be a solid test, and its team fits that mid-major mold that has worked well at times in the NCAA tournament. It’ll offset its lack of quality depth by chucking threes and will win games by making a high percentage of them. The Ospreys won 23 games by averaging nine treys per contest on 39 percent 3-point shooting last year. If Moore, Beech and one or two more North Floridians are hitting from deep, Illinois could be in trouble.

To win, the Illini will have to use their superior length and athleticism to lock down the perimeter, convert transition buckets and execute the offense in the half court.

North Dakota State will come in Sunday ranked slightly higher than North Florida — No. 122 as opposed No. 149 in the country, according to Sports Illustrated’s preseason rankings — having matched the Ospreys’ 23-win total from last year. Both teams won their respective conferences and conference tournaments last season. The Bison have made as many NCAA tournaments (three) as Illinois since 2009 and have been to the Big Dance each of the previous two years.

Unlike North Florida, the Bison will have to find a new threat this year. Last season’s leading scorer and Peoria, Illinois, native Laurence Alexander has graduated, so Illinois will focus on shutting down 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore A.J. Jacobson on the wing.

Make no mistake, Illinois will be favored in both games. Even with injuries to Black and Kendrick Nunn, the Illini are deeper and more talented than both their directional school opponents. Look for the three Illini true freshmen — Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan — who all exceeded expectations in the exhibition opener, to be counted on for quality minutes.

This weekend will be a good early-season barometer for an Illini squad that is still relatively unknown. Groce’s Illini teams are rarely tested and have never lost in the month of November.

They can’t afford to sleepwalk in these first two games, and if they do, there’s a good chance they’ll stumble.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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