Opening weekend for Illinois basketball comes on the heels of signing day
November 13, 2014
As if on cue, cold weather has arrived to remind us that basketball season is here.
And yes, Illinois football has a very real chance of making a bowl game this season as winter approaches. But it’s Illini basketball that’s on everyone’s minds mid-November.
I’d even go as far as to compare the upcoming Illini sports weekend to a classic Jimmy John’s sub. The football game on Saturday serves as the thin (and I mean thin) layer of meat Jimmy John’s gives us, which can sometimes be satisfying, depending on your mood. But we all know the real substance is in the bread, which are the two Illini basketball games on tap for this weekend on Friday and Sunday, sandwiching football and soaking up everyone’s attention like a Slim One soaks up mayonnaise.
John Groce’s squad will take the floor against Georgia Southern in the opener and Coppin State on Sunday in what should be back-to-back double figure victories to begin the season. Here are three things I’m looking to see out of the Illini this weekend, plus some added thoughts on National Signing Day:
Can Kendrick Nunn get acclimated?
The sophomore shooting guard is scheduled to return to live action Friday after sitting out the public scrimmage and first exhibition game due to a recurring knee injury. The 2013-14 All-Big Ten Freshman Team honoree served as a spark for a struggling Illini offense in the second half of last year but will not be relied on as heavily this season on the offensive end with other scoring options in the fold. Expect some rust in the first few games from Nunn as he gets his legs under him, and expect fellow shooting guard Aaron Cosby to remain in the starting lineup this weekend.
It will be intriguing to see if Nunn commands a large role on this year’s squad. I envision this season going one of two ways for Kendrick: Either he further establishes himself as an electrifying offensive player the Illini can count on, while consistently playing lock-down defense. Or, the knee injury nags Nunn and he never carves out a true niche on a roster heavy with guards, and ends up taking more of a backseat to Cosby and Rayvonte Rice. I’d bet on the former scenario.
Georgia Southern and Coppin State list seven and six seniors on their respective rosters. Both games will likely be physical, as the Illini will get a tune-up for the rough style of Big Ten play against these less talented teams. With both clubs bringing some muscle to State Farm Center, we’ll get to see if the Illini’s impressive bench-press totals translate to the court. I’ll be most interested in how Illinois handles its business on the boards and defensively in the paint, especially when center Nnanna Egwu is out of the game.
Will the Illini take care of weaker opponents like they should?
Last week, I wrote how I’d like to see Illinois put a heavier foot on the throats of weaker opponents this season than they have the past two years. Even Division II Quincy hung around with the Illini longer than expected last Friday, and Groce was less than pleased with his team’s intensity. If the Illini can truly cruise in their first four home games, it should give them confidence heading into the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving.
Signing Day thoughts
Wednesday was National Signing Day, as Groce has officially added four members to his 2015 recruiting class. Aaron Jordan, DJ Williams and Jalen Coleman-Lands will join the Illini next year as freshmen, and I was excited to learn Darius Paul is being given another chance under Groce as well. Paul is a good kid, and by all accounts, he’s put the alcohol and drug problems that plagued his sit-out year behind him.
These four guys truly want to be Illini, and near-misses on highly ranked talent in Groce’s tenure has tended to overshadow how solid his latest class is. Several recruiting services rank Groce’s 2015 class near the top 10 in the country, and second in the Big Ten.
No, he wasn’t able to land a true point guard in 2015 (yet), but Groce has stockpiled talented scorers, bolstering the Illini offense for the foreseeable future.