As we begin to count down the hours until the first college basketball game of the season tips off, there is still a lot that can be taken away from scrimmages and exhibition games. In Illinois' case, there may just be some impact Fighting Illini freshman who have what it takes to help the team to its first NCAA appearance in three years. All three of Illinois' freshmen played very well in their first collegiate basketball game: an exhibition game against University of Illinois-Springfield which the Fighting Illini dominated 104-69.
Illinois, with it's fourth-year head coach John Groce, is officially out of the Bruce Weber era (with the excpetion of twice-injured Tracy Abrams). That means that every player on the court this season has been recruited by John Groce. Thus far, Groce has proved to be an efficient recruiter, bringing in some productive freshmen and skilled fifth year transfers. Though Groce has had success on the recruiting trail, this will be the year where he is judged the most for his team's performance; all of the players on the floor are his, and he's expected to bring this program back to the Big Dance. That being said, Illinois had one of the better recruiting classes in the Big Ten with the graduating class of 2015, and with some solid coaching and help from teammates, these players could shine with the Fighting Illini this season.
If there has ever been an incoming freshman for Fighting Illini fans to get excited about, it's Jalen Coleman-Lands. The 6'4" Indiana native Coleman-Lands is ranked 34th in the ESPN 100 for the class of 2015. Coleman-Lands drew some concern back in the summer when he went down with a stress fracture that sidelined him until mid-October. Since he got back on the court, he's been showing loads of promise, especially in the recent exhibition game.
Jalen Coleman-Lands was the leading scorer and arguably player of the game for the Illini last Sunday. The freshman tallied 20 points in 23 minutes, 15 of which came from behind the three-point line. Illinois used his red-hot shooting in the first half to pull away from a feisty Illinois-Springfield team once and for all. In addition to his spectacular shooting, Coleman-Lands had three steals on the game and made three out of four free throw attempts (a category in which the Illini struggled immensely). Overall, it's likely that the freshman has earned himself a position in the starting lineup at the start of the season. He should see a lot of playing time at the shooting guard position in the early going, especially while junior Kendrick Nunn recovers from a thumb injury.
The four star shooting guard out of Plainfield, Illinois got the start at the shooting guard position in the Fighting Illini's exhibition game on Sunday. Aaron Jordan came out hot, scoring 5 of Illinois' first 10 points to capture an early lead. The freshman finished with 16 points on the game and did not miss a 2-point field goal. Jordan connected on 2 three pointers and impressively managed to pull down 7 rebounds, second to only Mike Thorne Jr. with 9 total boards.
Jordan looked aggressive all over the floor and even fouled out midway through the second half. He looks as if he can be a major contributor for the Fighting Illini from all over the floor. He showed his ability to knock down outside shots as well as his ability to move through the lane. Expect Coleman-Lands and Jordan to flip-flop out of the starting lineup at the shooting guard position, but no matter who gets the start, both will play a lot of minutes for Illinois, as they're beginning to show that they can really put the ball in the basket.
There was speculation as to whether or not 6'7" D.J. Williams would play the point guard position for Illinois. The Chicago product Williams is used to playing the 3 and 4 positions given his height, but he has also had prior experience at the top of the key. In fact, Illinois utilized him at point guard during the Euro Tour, and he displayed solid ball-handling and dribble-drive skills. But with the addition of LaSalle transfer and point guard Khalid Lewis and the loss of forward Darius Paul, he becomes more needed in the post, and that's exactly where John Groce played him in Sunday's exhibition game.
D.J. Williams had a solid game for the Illini, scoring 7 points and connecting on 2-6 field goals. Though his points in Illinois' first contest weren't by any means spectacular, his fellow freshmen Jordan and Coleman-Lands were the ones busy hogging all of the scoring. All in all, Williams had some good buckets down low and proved that he can play through contact. While he missed all three of his three point attempts, he has a lot of promise to be an inside-out type player that creates matchup nightmares. While sophomore forward Leron Black returns to the lineup within the next game or two, expect Williams to be a significant contributor off the bench.
Illinois showed great poise in its first exhibition game, playing past an easy opponent but also showing loads of promise as it heads into the 2015-16 regular season. The freshmen on Illinois' roster combined for 43 of Illinois' 104 points in the contest. All three of the players mentioned above certainly showed that they're ready to face the challenge of Division 1 Basketball. Jalen Coleman-Lands really seems as if he can be the X-Factor for an Illinois team that has battled through injuries and dismissals. The freshmen for the Illini will play a huge role, especially in the early part of the season, so solid games in the exhibition contest are promising for Fighting Illini fans heading into the start of the season. Illinois tips off the season with a home opener against North Florida on Friday.