The Big Ten is now on notice: Don’t schedule Matthew Driscoll’s North Florida group in your nonconference slate.
A year after defeating Purdue, the Ospreys picked up a 93-81 victory over Illinois on Friday in the opener for each team. Driscoll’s two stars, Dallas Moore and Beau Beech, were the main reasons the Ospreys were able to pick up the upset in this one. Moore scored 26 points to go with 10 assists, and Beech dropped 25 including seven 3-pointers. As a team, North Florida knocked down 17 3s as the Illinois really struggled with the ball movement
This should be a pretty nice résumé-builder for the Ospreys, who are the clear favorites in the Atlantic Sun and could return to the NCAA Tournament, except this time with a nicer seed and a better chance to advance than last season.
On the other side, there are a lot of excuses as to why Illinois would lose this game. The Illini are ravaged with injuries, as Tracy Abrams and Kendrick Nunn are out in the backcourt, and Leron Black is injured in the frontcourt. Plus, Jalen Coleman-Lands didn’t have a full offseason of practice due to a stress fracture and Jaylon Tate missed some time recently with a concussion. To make matters worse, Tate also dislocated his finger Friday and may miss further time.
It’s also worth noting that Illini newcomer Mike Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte, had a solid 25 points and 14 rebounds in his debut. Returning star Malcolm Hill did his job too, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
But even with those excuses and performances and even if it was to a quality opponent, it’s undeniable that John Groce’s seat just got a bit hotter with this loss. The program has had a decrease in wins in each of his three seasons at the helm, and this isn’t the best start to getting things back on the right track. Plus, just the way this one looked from a defensive standpoint certainly isn’t a feather in his cap. With a new athletic director coming soon, Groce could end up being in a precarious position if he can’t turn this around.
The jury is certainly still out until we see more from Illinois this season. And there are plenty of oppotunities coming on the schedule to pick up quality wins, as the Illini have North Dakota State — a favorite in the Summit League — and Providence in its next two contests. But following this loss, it’s clear that Groce has a lot of work to do with this team, injuries or no. And the margin for error just got a bit smaller.