Illinois (12-5, 2-2) put up a big 16 point victory over the Michigan Wolverines (11-6, 1-3) Wednesday night with a balanced and continued offensive attack, highlighted by a new starting lineup and varied rotation.
The starting lineup consisted of Abrams, Hill, JCL, Mav, and Black with Kipper Nichols and Te’jon Lucas two of the first guys off the bench for the Illini. Finally. After 16 games and four starting lineups, It looked like Groce and company finally figured out the right five guys to put out there and who to bring off the bench. Kipper (who had a career high in every stat imaginable including 13 points, 8 rebounds in 19 minutes) had only played sparingly this year, and Te’jon (5 points, 8 assists, only 1 TO in 23 minutes), who has also seen limited amount of playing time due to Groce’s tendency to play Tate, finally saw big boy minutes today, and boy did they capitalize on it.
The beginning of the first half was dominated by the big men for Illinois. Leron was back to hitting his jump shots, and Mav was a force in the paint, working the low block as well as he has all season. With 7 minutes left in the first half, Illinois went on a 22-9 run to head into the locker room with a 51-36 lead led by Mav’s 12 points and Kipper’s 9.
The second half was more of the same, and although Michigan managed to cut the lead down to 9 early in the second half, Illinois quickly went on another run of their own, increasing the lead up to 16 and never looking back, cruising to a comfortable victory.
Illinois shot an incredible 64.2% from the field (1.393 points per possession), including 9-14 from beyond the arc.
Kipper and Te’jon: I’m going to pair these two together today. It was such a relief to see these guys get extended minutes, and boy did they make the most of them. These guys have a ton of chemistry. They’re great friends off the court, and the connection transferred to the game as well. I look forward to seeing even more minutes from the young guys, and would love an encore presentation Saturday against Maryland.
JCL: Every game JCL has been getting more and more comfortable. He hit 4-5 from 3 point territory, but the biggest thing to me was that he did a fantastic job passing the ball, with a career-high 4 assists. JCL has been a big indicator of how Illinois will play. Good game for Jalen? Illinois will most likely play well.
Mav: Mav’s senior coming out party continues to occur right in front of our eyes, as he took advantage of the starting position that Groce rightfully awarded to him. A team high 16 points on 8-9 shooting, with his points coming from some very nice down low play, as well as a couple of baseline and outside shots. If he can keep this scoring up, he will continue to start and see the court for most of the game (32 minutes against Michigan). He still needs to get more physical on defense, bringing down only a single rebound, despite Illinois outrebounding Michigan by 13.
Malcolm: Malcolm scored 15 points and it was great to see him not have to carry the team offensively. He was aggressive, driving to the rim multiple times and getting fouled (6-7 from the line), and hit some jumpers as well. If Malcolm can relax and not have to take control of the offense, taking step back jumper after step back jumper when down 20+ points, then this team will continue to function highly offensively.
What I loved: Other than the lineup change and Kipper and Te’jon coming off the bench for real playing time, the offensive balance and efficiency was great. Five players were in double digits for the Illini, as the Illini looked incredibly unselfish, dishing out a total of 21 assists on 34 field goals.
What I hated: Defense continues to be a struggle for Illinois. Michigan shot 52.9% from the field including 7-14 from downtown. Letting up this kind of shooting performance will make beating more talented opponents very difficult, even if Illinois can continue to play offense the way they had tonight. Michigan was led by D.J. Wilson, who shot 8-12 from the field and had a game-high 19 points. Look for Groce to continue to hammer home defense to his team.
Overall: I think this game gave hope to Illinois fans. The Illini crowd was in the game throughout, even chanting “Kipper Nichols” at times. This game put a pep in the step of the fanbase, the team, and a coach who is fighting for his job and to get his team into the tournament. This was a big step in the right direction for Illinois, but now it has to prove it can put up the same type of performance against more talented B1G teams.
It’s a real relief to see JG trust Mav in a starting spot, and to trust the two freshmen to come out there and play basketball at a B1G level. You feel for Mike Thorne Jr. and Jaylon Tate, but everyone, including them, know that the decision is for the best, and tonight was a prime example why.
Next Game: Illinois has a very quick turnaround as they take on Maryland at home this Saturday at the SFC. This is a chance for the Illini to redeem themselves, after getting run out of the gym in an 84-59 loss at Maryland a couple of weeks ago.