After the loss to Michigan, I wrote about the lack of toughness and togetherness this team shows in spite of its motto. Well, we finally saw the Illini back up those words with their play last night at the State Farm Center, where they beat the Hawkeyes 76-64.
This was truly a team win. All ten players who checked in played double-digit minutes. That’s rare in conference games. Nine players scored, and every single player had at least one rebound. They shared the ball and played active defense. This looked more like the Illini team fans were expecting this season
Speaking of fan expectations, today was the day many had been waiting for. The first starter announced was freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas. Lucas was greeted by a roar from the crowd of 11,000+ and the Orange Krush newly returned from break. It was a good start.
Actually, it was a really good start. The Illini stormed out of the gate, pummeling the Hawkeyes with crisp passing and deadly accuracy. Maverick Morgan scored on a pair of jumpers, Te’Jon Lucas swished a three (which was nice after he banked a couple in past games. I’m never sure whether to trust a bank shot…), and Jalen Coleman-Lands drained another triple while handing out two assists. The Illini were up 10-0 in less than three minutes.
Then things got interesting. After a timeout, John Groce subbed in Tracy Abrams, Michael Finke, and Jaylon Tate. When Tate was announced for Lucas, the crowd booed mightily. Their displeasure seemed justified, as Iowa cut the lead to 10-4 behind two Illini turnovers and several missed shots. Another puzzling substitution saw Tate, Abrams, Finke, Kipper Nichols, and Mike Thorne, Jr. all on the floor at the same time. Where is the creativity and playmaking going to come from with that combination?
In spite of some odd lineups and discordant substitutions, the Illini played one of their better halves this season. They shot over 50%, showed 10 assists to 5 turnovers, and held Iowa to 24 points. And I mean “in spite of” rather than “because of.” Groce seems to be a loyal guy. Loyal to his assistant coaches and loyal to his players, especially his seniors. In postgame comments, he said he discussed the decision to start Te’Jon – or more specifically, perhaps, the decision to move Abrams out of the starting lineup – with his senior guard during a meeting this week. Conversation is important, and communication and respect are crucial in sports, but this is a move that most people who follow the team have been calling for for weeks. Maybe things have looked different in practice, but in the games that count, it’s been fairly obvious that the team plays better when Lucas is on the floor.
Further, it does players few favors when they’re asked to play beyond their capabilities when there’s a guy on the bench who can get the job done. That’s an awkward way of saying that the crowd booing when Tate subbed in for Lucas is on Groce. I’m not a big boo-er of players. (Refs are fair game, though.) These are kids playing a game to the best of their ability under the watchful eyes of tens of thousands of people who are – to varying degrees – invested in their performance. The coach needs to protect his guys by putting them in position to succeed. Tate has an important role on this team as a spot substitute. Abrams has a role, too. But freshman Te’Jon Lucas has the vision and ability to run this show. Abrams needs to be David Ross to Lucas’s Willson Contreras. Look where that mentorship got the Cubs. And Ross undoubtedly still had his moments, including hitting a homerun in his last major league at bat in the championship game. Illini fans would love to see Tracy Abrams go out like that.
Back to the game. In the second half, the Illini held on and never let the lead slip below nine. Finke was the offensive star, scoring 17 points on 7-10 shooting. Maverick Morgan chipped in 12, and Malcolm Hill and Leron Black scored 11 and 10, respectively. Lucas led the way with 6 assists, Coleman-Lands had 4, and Hill and Tate contributed 3 each, as the Illini handed out 18 assists on 26 made baskets. This game saw some of the best floor spacing and ball movement for the Illini this season.
The defense was very much improved, too. “I’ve been on them about mental toughness and defending for a full 40 minutes, and I thought that was as close as, you know, maybe that we have,” Groce said after the game. “I thought we had exceptional energy and effort.” Hill led the defensive charge, shutting down Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok. With help from Kipper Nichols, Hill and the Illini held Jok to 10 points on 3-9 shooting. Jok never got into the flow of the game, and Iowa coach Fran McCaffery claimed he was unaware of any lingering effects his star guard may have been feeling as a result of an earlier back injury.
Groce claimed that Lucas had made significant strides defensively that allowed him to be trusted with more minutes. The team certainly played better last night – on both sides of the ball – with the freshman on the court. We’ll see how things play out, but it was encouraging to see young guys like Lucas, Finke, Coleman-Lands, Black, and Nichols play well together. This team may be at a bit of a crossroads. It’s been heralded as a senior-laden, experienced team. One of the oldest in the NCAA. Maybe the younger players are flipping this narrative. That could be a good thing, both for this season and for the program.
Photos: Heather Coit, AP, via Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/ct-illinois-iowa-college-basketball-spt-0126-20170125-story.html