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October 24, 2013

Illini kick off exhibition season

The Illini host McKendree in their first exhibition game on Thursday evening at 7PM in the State Farm Center. The game will be televised as a part of the Illini All-Access online subscription, and diehards can watch it on Friday morning at 11:30AM CST on the Big Ten Network.

As John Groce decides which players grade out the highest based upon practice, he will also be grading out the first exhibition game on Thursday night and see how his new look Illini shape up after another week of practice. Groce wasn't happy after the Orange and Blue Scrimmage, particularly with some defensive issues. Now, they get to go through a game day experience and finally play against somebody else.

McKendree shouldn't be much competition as far as the game itself, as they are transitioning to Division II this year after being an NAIA school previously. An interesting name to watch is former Chicago Curie player Jeremy Price, who scored 21 PPG at the JUCO level a year ago. Of course, any Illini fans that follow recruits are going to recognize a pair of players on the McKendree roster quite well. Former Illini Tyler Griffey's high school teammate Will Kirksey is a big body inside that transferred from Central Missouri, while Mike Springs was a teammate and PG for Waukegan and Jereme Richmond as they made their runs to the state tournament in 2009 and 2010.

That's enough about the Bearcats, as this game is about the Illini and their improvements. With the 3 transfers sitting out now, Illinois has 10 scholarship players plus walk-on Mike LaTulip. Expect all 11 to see action. Groce says that Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu will be starting, with the rest of the spots up in the air. But the reality is that Rayvonte Rice Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams will be the other 3 guys once the season starts.

Keys to the game for the Illini

1. Defensive improvements - Whether it was post defense, perimeter defense or transition defense, Illinois had issue in their Orange and Blue Scrimmage a week ago. However, the post defense was the biggest issue. Big men Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan have to show some growth and improvement each time they step on the floor. The player that defends will get the playing time most likely. Defense is a great deal about positioning, so they need to pick up their understanding of the system first. Thursday they can show some growth, hopefully.

2. Where is Tracy Abrams? - One of the players expected to be a leader for this squad hasn't been great of late, struggling to fill his role as a playmaker on the perimeter. He needs to facilitate and score when he has the opportunity, and the reality is that he may be the most important player on the squad in some regards. Illinois needs his experience and ability to be a leader on the floor.

3. The young guns emerge - The 5 freshmen are a talented group, no doubt. But the race to see which ones are the most ready to play will be interesting to watch. Malcolm Hill will see time behind Jon Ekey, and Jaylon Tate has been a bit of a surprise at point guard, but game play is a different animal. Kendrick Nunn is an elite athlete, but is still learning the subtle aspects of the college game, such as not fouling. Morgan and Colbert were mentioned above, and both have had growing pains. With Mike LaTulip the only other player eligible on the roster that isn't a freshman, the walk-on can solidify his spot in the rotation with some more strong play.

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