Five things basketball beat writer Marcus Jackson learned during Illinois’ fourth full week of practice
If you were concerned about how such an inexperienced team would perform after what coaches perceived to be a lackluster performance, then Thursday’s exhibition opener should have provided relief. In cruising past McKendree 101-66, Illinois displayed a resolve that might be necessary this season when it almost certainly will hit a rough patch. “We didn’t think we were up to our standards, and we weren’t very good in a lot of areas,” Groce said about the Orange & Blue Scrimmage. “We did some good things (against McKendree). We were better than we were last Thursday. I thought that was the one highlight.” Now the key is seeing how they respond to that success going into next week’s exhibition finale against Northwood (Mich.).
Malcolm Hill can now do everything his teammates do. Well, almost. The freshman swingman has gone through all the workouts and team activities with the Illini, but from a legal standpoint, he was held back. The entire team recently got flu shots and Hill couldn’t join them — because he was only 17 years old and needed parental consent. The 6-foot-6 Hill finally turned 18 on Saturday, so he’s free to vaccinate himself if he so chooses. There were cookies in the Illinois basketball offices this weekend to celebrate Hill’s milestone birthday.
The college basketball experience has been a challenging one so far for freshman Austin Colbert. The forward from Virginia is learning to play center while adjusting to the daily grind of the sport, but at the same time, he’s enjoying himself. “I’m just having so much fun being with the greatest group of guys I’ve ever been around,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but that’s what makes it fun. Whatever Coach Groce asks me to do, whether that’s play the 4 or the 5, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Fans saw some of the versatility to Jon Ekey’s game against McKendree. The 6-foot-7 Illinois State transfer has been pegged as just a shooter by some. While he can stroke it from the outside, there’s more to his game. In the exhibition, Ekey put the ball on the floor and got to the basket to score on his way to 12 points. He also grabbed six rebounds and kept numerous plays alive on the offensive end with his tapouts. “That’s one of the things all of the coaches have been telling me, just going in and hitting the glass hard. I’ve just got to be able to go in there, whether I’m already in there and just trying to push guys out or coming from outside trying to get a tipout — I got a couple of those today — just get my hands on the ball,” Ekey said.
A couple of the rules changes in college basketball might take some getting used to. At one point during Thursday’s game, Tracy Abrams went to the basket and made contact with a defender. An official blew the whistle and called the McKendree defender for a block in the paint. Groce turned to the bench and said, “Last year, that would have been a charge.” Defenders now have to be set before the offensive player makes his upward motion. There also will be more fouls called on the perimeter when defenders use their hands and forearms for leverage. Expect to see ugly games marred by extra whistles. “That really errs on the side of assisting the offense,” Groce said. “We’ve got to be able to adjust better.”