Alabama State (0-0, 0-0) at Illinois (0-0, 0-0)
8:00 PM EST
Series Record: First Meeting
Last Meeting: n/a
Blog Representation: the Champaign Room
When Illinois parted ways with Bruce Weber, not that many people anticipated that new hire John Groce would get the Illini to the NCAA Tournament in his first season. Now entering his second season, most people hold the exact same opinion of this Illini team as many are expecting this to be a team in transition. That train of thought does make sense to some extent, as the team loses Brandon Paul and almost all of their key contributors in the back and front court. While there is some talent in returning point Tracy Abrams and center Nnanna Egwu, both have struggled at times even with a strong supporting cast.
The Illini will face SWAC member Alabama State, who are coming off of three straight losing seasons. The Hornets were relatively deep last season, using nine different players extensively in their rotation, so there's plenty of returning talent to make up for the loss of Phillip Crawford. However, they also won a mere ten games last season so it's not exactly a stacked roster. Even worse is Alabama State went 2-12 out of conference, with their two wins against Troy and Auburn Montgomery.
So for every question Illinois has, for every freshman they'll need to rely heavily on and the slew of transfers filling out the roster, they still ended up with a manageable opener. The Illini actually have an extremely favorable schedule, with UNLV and Georgia Tech being the only potential tests throughout the first month of the season. The opener versus Alabama State should allow Groce to get his freshmen's feet wet and get the transfers up and running, while it could be used to build confidence for Abrams and Egwu. Abrams has struggled heavily with turnovers and Egwu has been relatively ineffective on the boards and offensively. If Illinois wants to return to the NCAA Tournament it will start with these two players, though their minutes may be limited in what is expected to be a blowout.