So what in the world would happen if Illinois lost to Division II McKendee in its exhibition basketball opener Thursday night?
Would fund-raising for the State Farm Center renovation cease?
Would Cliff Alexander cancel his recruiting visit that is scheduled to begin Friday evening?
Would the wheels fall of what many believe is an Illini basketball express that is just beginning to chug away from the station?
When McKendree went ahead 21-10 early in Thursday’s game, that question crossed a lot of people’s minds.
But we’ll never know.
The State Farm Center renovation project is cooking along, full speed ahead. Big Cliff is due to arrive in Champaign just as promised and fans can expect John Groce to put on a five-star show for the heralded Chicago recruit.
And that basketball express is still chugging away from the station, maybe gaining a little steam after watching all five freshmen contribute to Illinois 101-66 victory Thursday.
There were some balky moments at first, especially when Illinois failed to get out on McKendree’s shooters and 5 of its first 6 went into the basket.
But once Illinois started to tighten up on defense and drive the ball hard to the basket, the game changed.
Interesting, it was a lineup that included senior Joe Bertrand and four freshmen – Austin Colbert, Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn – that finished the first half with a flourish, allowing the Illini to take charge.
“That was a really important part of the game,” Groce said. “I liked the way that group responded. Sometimes you go by instinct and I loved their energy. They were making plays on the offensive and making them on the defensive end that led to transition offense.
“They made a lot of plays that put us in position to be up by eight at the half.”
A dunk by Colbert, the 6-9 forward from New Jersey, tied the game at 37. Then Tate stole the ball and drove for a basket for a 39-37 Illini lead with 2:28 to go in the half.
After a McKendree turnover, Colbert scored again on a feed from Hill and two free throws by Tate pushed the Illini lead to 43-37.
After McKendree’s Jeremy Price scored, Tate added two more free throws and Bertrand – the only non-freshman on the floor – finished the first-half scoring by flying through the lane for a basket to give Illinois a 47-39 edge at the break.
“From down by 11, it was a 19-point turnaround,” Groce said.
After a cold start from the field, Illinois shot 64.7 percent in the second half and 55.4 percent for the game. And Groce was pleased with just eight turnovers.
Abrams, who went to the locker room briefly in the first half with a slight ankle sprain, returned to lead Illinois with 16 points. Rayvonte Rice and Tate added 13 each and Ekey, the Illinois State transfer, scored 12 and had six rebounds.
From game to game in the early season, different freshmen will stand out.
I thought Hill did in the Orange & Blue scrimmage.
Tate and Colbert did Thursday, and then Hill got going and showed promise again. Maverick Morgan played better.
Illinois needs to attack. The veterans need to be good and stay out of foul trouble. Bertrand needs to play like he’s mad at someone. He needs to be great for longer stretches, not 2 out of every 14 minutes. He’s capable of being great when he attacks.
Next up is the second and final exhibition Nov. 3 vs. Northwood (Mich.). Then the regular season begins Nov. 8 vs. Alabama State.
It’s going to be an interesting ride.