Coleman-Lands arrives ahead of schedule as Illini crush UIS

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Coleman-Lands arrives ahead of schedule as Illini crush UIS

By Alex Roux

Illinois delivering a beatdown in its first and only exhibition game to Division-II Illinois-Springfield Sunday was expected.

The Prairie Stars put pressure on the Illini at times, but didn’t have the talent to keep up for a full 40 minutes. Illinois won 104-68 in the first game at its temporary home away from home at Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield.

But while the outcome was nearly predetermined, one of the main catalyst’s efforts behind the Illini throttling was not. At least if you listened to this columnist in the days leading up to the game.

Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands had a team-high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting Sunday, nailing five three-pointers with his silky-smooth shooting stroke. Just a few days ago, he hadn’t even fully participated in practice due to his ongoing recovery from a stress fracture in his leg.

I thought it was doubtful Coleman-Lands would see the floor in Sunday’s scrimmage, much less get enough minutes to lead all scorers. According to Illinois head coach John Groce, Coleman-Lands returned to full activity in just two practices before Sunday’s game.

I shouldn’t have underestimated the Illini’s highest-rated freshman.

Despite heavy legs due to large amounts of summer inactivity during his recovery, Coleman-Lands sparked an Illini scoring blitz after his team was tied at 23 with seven minutes remaining in the first half. His pair of threes helped open up a 44-26 Illinois lead in the first frame, and he poured in eight more points in the second half to cement his impressive Illini debut.

Though Coleman-Lands’ performance came against soft competition, it’s still extremely eye-opening under the circumstances. A freshman filling it up is always noteworthy, but Coleman-Lands did it without the benefit of proper preparation over the last four months due to injury. His shooting touch definitely didn’t abandon him during his rehab, and it will carry him while the rest of his game — defense and conditioning — catches up with added reps.

Coleman-Lands wasn’t the only Illini freshman to ball out Sunday. D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan were both in the starting lineup, and Jordan put up 16 points to Williams’ seven. Both looked ready to contribute in some capacity this year, and the performances from all three true freshmen were nothing short of encouraging.

Each of Groce’s upperclassmen had positive moments, headlined by senior center Mike Thorne Jr.’s 16 points and nine rebounds. Malcolm Hill added 10 points, though Illinois-Springfield head coach Bill Walker pointed out after the game that Hill probably could have scored 30 if he tried.

Senior transfer Khalid Lewis was 3-for-3 on three-point attempts in a 13-point effort and was solid backing up starting point guard Jaylon Tate.

Still, Groce wasn’t completely thrilled with his team’s play, pointing out after the game that it fluctuated between good and sloppy and times.

“It was just kind of feast or famine,” Groce said. “We need to get that cleaned up.”

Groce also challenged Illini fans to fill the 7,700-seat Convention Center for their next four games in Springfield. The announced crowd for Sunday’s exhibition was 5,833, but it didn’t look like more than 3,500 people — which included Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner — actually showed up to the downtown arena in Illinois’ capital city.

Those in attendance never got especially boisterous, even with alcohol sales presumably boosting the spirits of patrons. It seemed like everyone, even Springfield natives, was getting accustomed to seeing the Illini play a home game in such an unfamiliar setting. A setting which, with its cozy dimensions and low roof, is conducive to a raucous environment for basketball.

As attendance spikes and the stakes rise Friday with the arrival of the first regular season game against North Florida, the Prairie Capital Convention Center will begin to feel more like home for the Illini.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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