Smile Politely

Bench big against American

American was never really in the game. OK, so for the first 7 minutes of the game they were tied and midway through the second half they closed the gap to 8 points, but it never really felt like American was a threat. Illinois’s eventual win, 70-55, never seemed in doubt.

There were a few bumps along the way, but that was the result of John Groce taking a few liberties with the lineup. Illinois (7-1) had just 4 turnovers in the first half, but they matched that number 4 minutes into the second half and finished the game with a total of 14 turnovers. This likely happened because Groce left his starters on the bench for longer periods of time in the second half, probably in an attempt to keep them fresh for the tough test of Villanova waiting on Tuesday.

Groce also must have made it clear that his team did not need to take every shot they could after taking 30 threes and missing 23 against Miami. On Saturday Illinois only shot 12 threes (making 5) and just 48 total field goals, but the shooters were efficient, making 47.9% against American.  No one player stood high above his teammates; Malcolm Hill was the closest, but even his 13-point performance was not completely dominant.

Nnanna Egwu also had a good game though he scored just 5 points, all in the first half, his 9 rebounds, 7 blocks and 2 steals in his 27 minutes were part of a very complete defensive performance. With more time given to the substitutes, however, their performances looked particularly impressive.

“I thought our reinforcements were good. I thought they were ready to roll,” Groce said.

“I think the bench is really important. If we really play hard, we should need a sub. I think we have a bench full of starters,” Hill added.

Maverick Morgan had his best game this season, coming off the bench and setting a new career high with 8 points and adding 4 rebounds in the process. His play was a part of an improved Illini frontcourt, which allowed American exactly 0 offensive rebounds (compared to Illinois’s 19). Leron Black also chipped in 4 rebounds in his time on the floor.

Jaylon Tate, another sophomore, also had his best game of the year. He has already shown improvement over his freshman season this year, but in his 19 minutes against American he looked even better, dishing out 4 assists and scoring 8, including a big and-one late in the game that pretty much put the Eagles away for good. Likewise, Kendrick Nunn looked really good, keeping his hands active and nabbing four steals off the bench.

As good as Morgan, Tate, and Nunn looked, though, it’s important to keep the opposition in mind. American is what everyone thought they were, as is Villanova. There are only a couple more gimmes on the Illinois schedule, which means the contributions from the sophomores need to continue to improve as the competition improves. If they can play like this through the remaining nonconference games and into Big Ten season, Illinois is tourney-bound. If their play falls as competition grows stiffer, this will be another NIT year. I’m still bullish about the Illini, though, and think what we’re seeing from the sophomores is real growth and, thus, promising.

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