Let’s get this out of the way right now: Illinois lost its first home opener since 1999 on Friday night, falling 93-81 to North Florida.
This is bad.
But any fan who thinks the Illini might as well have lost to DeVry or University of Phoenix is badly mistaken, for many reasons. First, North Florida is a good team, a team constructed to play spoiler against the big boys. Hell, they did it last year against Purdue (turnabout is fair game, lol Illini on this one), and their perimeter play, especially that of Dallas Moore and Beau Beech, played their part to perfection and sunk the Illini with 14 (!) threes.
Which brings me to the second reason this loss is not so totally completely absolutely devastatingly awful: as with just about everything else so far this season, Illinois was snake bit to some degree on Friday night. How often is a team going to go 17 for 33 from behind the arc? If it becomes a trend, yeah, get worried, real worried, but in isolation this is just bad luck.
One more reason this loss is not end-of-the-world bad is that Jaylon Tate went down early in the game with a dislocated finger, forcing Illinois to just nine healthy bodies — seven of whom were playing their first action in orange and blue. Even making a run at the game late in the proceedings when you have that many new people is positive.
But the biggest reason losing to North Florida shouldn’t end anyone’s interest in this season before it starts: Illinois got itself in the same situation on Sunday against North Dakota State and battled back to win 80-74.
After trailing by as many as 14 and by 9 at half, 28-39, the Illini showed resolve and strength to exploit weakness in the Bison and come away with a victory. Boosted by the return of Leron Black to the line up, the Illini pushed the tempo in the second half and outscored NDSU 52-35.
One of the biggest keys to the second half surge was freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands. After fouling out with just five points in the first game, the highly rated recruit sparked a 9-0 run midway through the second. He would finish the game with 15 points.
Another pleasant surprise was Maverick Morgan. As an Illini, well, Morgan has never really been impressive at all; in these digital pages I’ve previously advocated for his transfer and even called him one of Groce’s worst recruits. It’s always nice to be proven wrong, though, and Morgan did that Sunday with 10 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench.
After losing Tate (an absence which is indefinite after he went through surgery on his pinkie), Groce identified Malcolm Hill as the guy to help out at point guard. When senior transfer Khalid Lewis got into foul trouble, Hill was thrust into the role more than he likely would have preferred against the Bison. But the junior did as he’s always done with the Illini and proved how talented he is. In 35 minutes of court time, Hill had 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists. Not a bad follow-up to his 20-point, 10-rebound effort in the opener.
The new Illini star, however, is Mike Thorne Jr. Against North Florida he was a monster, grabbing 14 rebounds and scoring 25 to pace the team in both categories. On Sunday he was once again at the head of the pack, scoring 21, grabbing 8 boards, and swatting a pair of blocks. Both North Florida and NDSU are shorter teams, allowing the 6’11” transfer to easily shoot over his opponents’ heads; this may not be the case in future games, but you have to feel good about the way the big man has started off his Illini career.
Starting 1-1 is less than optimal, less than expected, and, quite possible, less than what it takes for John Groce to get a fifth year in Champaign. But avoiding an 0-2 start was absolutely critical. This could well be a long season, but at least this team has already shown us they’re not ready to wave a white flag in the face of so many injuries, and that’s encouraging for all fans.