Four takeaways from the Illini open scrimmage

Illinois’ Leron Black looks for an open pass during the “Illini All In” scrimmage at Ubben Basketball Complex on Sunday.

With State Farm Center still in the process of being patched up in time for the upcoming season, Illinois basketball had to get a little creative.

On Sunday afternoon, John Groce’s team squared off against itself at the Ubben Indoor Practice Facility for its first basketball event of the 2014-15 campaign. A select number of fans and media were able to attend.

It was dubbed an “interactive event” for the fans who were invited, as a luncheon and autograph session sandwiched the scrimmage that featured Illini players switching between “Orange” and “Blue” sides over the course of three 10-minute periods.

Here are four takeaways from Sunday’s scrimmage:

Leron Black will contribute this year

The freshman was all over the floor, grabbing rebounds, hustling on defense and causing general mayhem. Black had a total of nine points across the three periods, but it was his intangibles that stood out most.

Rumors of a never-ending motor within the 6-foot-7 freshman forward proved to be true Sunday, as Black brought energy in the paint to go with a smooth-looking mid-range jumper. On one particular play, Black received the ball deep underneath the hoop, gathered himself and muscled the ball in the basket while absorbing contact from at least two opposing players for a three-point play.  

He’ll have growing pains like most newcomers, but his physicality and size will offset some potential freshmen mistakes. Look for Black to be a force off the bench this year, and a downright beast later on as his body develops.

Nnanna Egwu will shoot threes this year

The senior Egwu buried two of four 3-point attempts. Yes, many Illini fans groaned last season when Egwu squared it up from deep. A cold streak from behind the arc seemed to drain the big man’s confidence in his shot, leading him to abandon it for the second half of last season.

On Sunday, Egwu’s 3-point stroke looked smoother and less robotic than last year’s version. If he can consistently knock down threes this year, it will only make what looks to be a potent Illini offense more powerful.

The offense has a lot of potential

After a shaky first period where the players seemed to be shaking off some rust, the potential of Groce’s ball-screen offense began to materialize. Transfer point guard Ahmad Starks showed a freakish ability to create his own shot, which allowed teammates open looks on the wings. The ball also moved to both sides of the floor pretty effectively, something last year’s team struggled mightily with. 

What is most encouraging is that the offense looked pretty impressive despite a quiet day from Aaron Cosby and an absent Kendrick Nunn, who was held out of the scrimmage as a precaution to make sure his knee fully heals from a nagging injury. If Illinois can stretch opposing defenses and create driving lanes for guys like Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill, the Illini offense will be a drastic improvement over last year’s anemic effort.

Malcolm Hill is poised for a breakout year

Hill was brilliant in Sunday’s scrimmage. He led all scorers with 18 points and showed an ability to score from anywhere on the floor. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Hill will be a tough matchup for opponents, who will have to figure out a way to stop a guy who can knock down threes, mid-range jumpers and bang in the post.

Hill struggled until late last season to carve out a role on Groce’s squad, but now seems to be playing with a comfort and confidence that could help him make a huge leap in his sophomore season.

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