For the Fighting Illini basketball team, the first real test came late last night against UNLV on the road. After beating up on some lesser opponents in Champaign, Coach Groce and Company traveled to Las Vegas in preparation for a December stretch that’s looking much tougher.
Illinois went down by 10 at halftime and looked pretty bad the final four minutes of the first half. We knew the halftime adjustments were coming, though, and Coach Groce indeed had them looking better in the second. It’s such novel idea to come out of halftime knowing your team will shift and change to exploit identified weaknesses… We still aren’t used to it.
The Illini out-toughed and out executed UNLV in the second, with good performances by Ray Rice, Nnanna Egwu, and Jaylon Tate. Final score 61-59, thanks to switching the defenses, running the right set plays in given situations, and hitting some clutch shots towards the end This is an early season belief-win that will surely help the RPI come March.
Five points in your first road-win pentagram…
- Rayvonte steps up. In the first two minutes of the game, CBS color man Doug Gottleib warned Illini fans Rayvonte Rice might not be good enough (or tall enough) against top line competition. Rice went on to drop 25 points and grab 10 boards. He has quickly become the focal scorer for the team, and his willingness to drive and draw will be a feature all year. We like our power guard.
- Egwu must play. When he picked up a very cheap (and poorly called) second foul about seven minutes into the game, I yelled at the screen. Coach Groce probably did as well. Egwu’s absence was a big factor in UNLV’s late first half run. On defense he simply protects the lane with his length and ability to hedge. The Rebels found it a lot harder to finish with Egwu in the paint. And as we saw in the second half, his range has extended to the 3.
- Right calls, right time. In the past, you could be forgiven for cursing the Illini not running good offensive sets at key moments. They didn’t run plays for years. Likewise, you could count on them to not switch defenses to dictate the opponent’s flow. But last night, and as we’ve seen since the new coaching staff arrived, flexibility is on the table. On offense it was iso-plays for Rice when the matchups favored him, the three straight pick-and-rolls from Tate to Egwu, and the double screens to free up Ekey for a big three and Rayvonte for the game winning drive. Defense saw frequent switches between zone and man based on personnel. And UNLV became confused and tentative down the stretch as a result. That’s some good tactical coaching.
- Shot-making. This team will probably have more nights like this one, when nothing seemed to go in from outside. While it looks like they’ve continued the mentality to scrap and claw through poor shooting, the Illini will have a tough time beating good teams when nobody can make a three. This was certainly the case in the first half. Second half threes by Egwu, Rice, and (finally) Ekey were key to erasing the 10 points and winning. The Illini may be a drive-first group, but they’ll still need to hit those open looks.
- What’s a foul? The Orange and Blue got no calls last night. It happens on the road. But you can’t blame anyone for looking a little confused with the ongoing saga of officiating. It’s almost as if the refs know any called charge will be reviewed ad nauseum and their bonuses cut as a result. Ekey took two charges last night, and Rice took one – all legit, even by the new enforcement standards. On the other end, our guys were getting hacked and bumped on the way to the hoop and yet only shot nine free throws. UNLV shot sixteen. If we’re not sure what’s a foul, at least keep it consistent.