Well that was fun! Illinois played with a flair we haven’t seen much this year and dismantled Michigan 85-69 in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the State Farm Center. On a balmy, rainy night – with most of the Orange Krush enjoying the last of the holiday home cooking – an 8:00 start on a week night meant there were quite a few empty seats in the building, but the Illini gave the fans who came out plenty to cheer about. Wearing the Flyin’ Illini throwback home uniforms, the current Illini played with some of the style and sense of freedom and fun that made those late 1980s teams legendary.
As promised, John Groce played his freshmen. And they delivered. Te’Jon Lucas played 23 minutes, made both of his field goal attempts (the banked three-pointer that beat the shot clock in the first half suggested luck was his lady last night), and handed out 7 or 8 (depending on whose box score you use) assists against one turnover. Lucas just sees the floor so much better than most players, and he’s able to find and/or anticipate the open man, even when that man is behind him. He made a couple of daring and creative passes, throwing the ball across court for an open three or through three defenders to a man under the basket. One of his most spectacular plays was when he drove to the hoop, drawing several defenders, then flipped it back over his shoulder to Kipper Nichols at the three point line. He nailed it. Check out the video. Two straight possessions when the game was tight in the first half; two great assists by the freshman point guard.
Speaking of Kipper Nichols, he was a difference maker. In 19 minutes, he scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. His five offensive boards were crucial, keeping plays alive or making putbacks to keep the Illini rolling and discourage the Wolverines. At times they made freshman mistakes. Kipper looked a little lost on a few offensive possessions, and Te’Jon tried a behind-the-back pass to Leron Black that got intercepted by Michigan and taken the other way for a layup, but these guys brought a new energy and creativity to the Illini that was desperately needed.
A few final comments. The defense still needs work. It’s not something that gets fixed overnight. Michigan shot 53% overall and 50% from three. You don’t expect to lose by double digits with those stats. But this game the Illini were all over the glass, outrebounding the Wolverines 30-17. The home team also shot lights out: 64% overall and 64% from three. The Illini effort on the defensive end looked better. The baseline rotation was still a little late, but quicker than at Indiana. We’ll see whether that’s a home/road split, due to line up changes, or incremental improvement overall.
I mentioned Tracy Abrams in the pregame, and he had a pretty meh night. Aside from this acrobatic play:
Lady luck is a slut.
The freshmen are going to get a lot of attention after this game, and they deserve it. But they didn’t do it alone. They brought an energy and creativity that enabled the Illini to play great team basketball. The box score shows six Illini in double figures, led by Maverick Morgan’s 16 and Malcolm Hill’s 15. Both guys played really well, as Mav went 8-9 from the field and Malcolm 6-7 from the line. Jalen Coleman-Lands turned in another solid all-around performance and displayed a new willingness to drive the ball. He went 4-5 from three and showcased a quick release and an ability to find the open spot. Leron Black scored 10 and pulled down 5 rebounds, and Michael Finke returned to form, scoring 10 on 4-4 shooting (2-2 from three).
There was a lot to like in this one. The Illini responded to every Michigan run with one of their own. In a back-and-forth first half, John Groce used his timeouts masterfully to disrupt Wolverine momentum and reset the Illini. After Michigan took a 34-32 lead with 4:30 to go in the half, Illinois went on a 17-2 run to take a 49-34 lead into the locker room. In the second half, the lead fluctuated between 9 and 20 points, but the Illini were fully in control throughout. When they play like they did last night, this Illini team is fun to watch.
Let’s see how they do against a much stronger Maryland team comes to visit Saturday.
Photo: Austin Yattoni at Daily Illini. http://dailyillini.com/photo-and-video/2017/01/11/photo-gallery-illini-basketball-vs-michigan/#slideshow