That game was fun to watch. Well, maybe not the first five minutes when the score was just 6-2 Northwestern, but most of us didn’t see that as we watched Penn State upset Maryland 70-64 in a game that was already running long before Maryland started to foul. We don’t seem to have missed any excitement in those opening minutes, but for the majority of this game, Illinois played with more tenacity, determination, and cohesion than we’ve seen all season.
The key to this performance was Groce’s willingness to shorten his bench and let the guys who were playing well develop a rhythm together on the court. Only nine guys played, which has been rare for the Illini this season. We’ve remarked several times that 10 players have seen at least 10 minutes. In this game, eight players got the bulk of the minutes, and all eight played at least 15. Aaron Jordan started the game at guard, but exited after four minutes and didn’t return. Looks like a message was being sent to Jalen Coleman-Lands, but why Jordan got the start over Tracy Abrams or even Kipper Nichols, sliding Malcolm Hill to the 2, I don’t know.
In any case, Groce let his guys play together, and they rewarded him with an unselfish offense – 18 assists on 24 made baskets – and a gritty defense. The Illini shot 45.3% overall against a Northwestern team that leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense, allowing opposing teams to shoot an average of 39%. Illinois also held the Wildcats to 33.9% shooting – 10 percentage points below their average. Admittedly, Northwestern was without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey, but this game was more interesting for what Illinois was able to do by playing together than for what Northwestern was missing.
For the most part, Illinois got excellent ball movement. Te’Jon Lucas played a season high 33 minutes, and he facilitated an offense that got everyone involved. Maverick Morgan was the only player on the team with more than 10 shot attempts. Eight players scored, and four were in double figures. The most encouraging development was Hill’s willingness to pass the ball out of a double team in the lane. For much of the season, the Illinois offense has devolved into a series of one-on-ones. Many times we’ve seen the rest of the Illini team clear out, isolating Hill and asking him to make a play on his own. Last night, when Hill started toward the hoop and the Northwestern defense collapsed, Illini shooters rotated to give him the option to kick the ball out quickly and force the defense to scramble to cover the open men. A couple of times, an Illini guard slid in behind Hill at the top of the key, providing an easy outlet. This player then distributed the ball, resulting in open three-point shots from the corner. This is the ideal way to use shooters like Michael Finke and Coleman-Lands.
Despite not scoring in the first half, Malcolm Hill played a complete game last night. He finished with 14 points (on 7 shots), 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. He and Lucas (11 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists) were the catalysts and tone setters. In a game that was tied at halftime and then seesawed back and forth until Illinois scored the last 7 points to seal the win, the Illini played tough and together. Maybe Groce is finally figuring out how to best utilize the weapons on this team. Illinois has talent, they just haven’t been able to put it all together over the first 25 games.
This performance was different from earlier wins. Against Michigan, Illinois shot 64%, and the Illini jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Iowa and sustained that lead by shooting 47% from three. But the Big Ten is a grind, and hot shooting alone isn’t enough to climb the standings. Teams have to learn to win when every shot isn’t falling. Successful teams have an offensive system that puts guys in position to get high percentage shots and a defense that brings it every night. Against Northwestern, the Illini finally seem to have found a combination of players who can create opportunities for each other rather than relying on Malcolm Hill to go one-on-one or somebody – usually Jaylon Tate for some reason – throwing up an off-balance shot as the shot clock expires. Last night, Illinois was a team that was executing a plan on both sides of the court. The challenge now will be whether they can sustain it (and whether Groce can stick with a short bench!).
Hill Photo: David Banks, AP, via Pantagraph. http://www.pantagraph.com/sports/college/illinois/balanced-illini-hand-northwestern-nd-straight-loss/article_b3a3a570-5b3c-549f-aa59-4ea5d70e734f.html
Lucas Photo: David Banks, AP, via Pantagraph. http://www.pantagraph.com/sports/college/illinois/balanced-illini-hand-northwestern-nd-straight-loss/article_b3a3a570-5b3c-549f-aa59-4ea5d70e734f.html
Morgan Photo: David Banks, AP, via WGN Radio. http://wgnradio.com/2017/02/07/highlights-northwestern-vs-illinois-2717/