Smile Politely

A night for optimism

The State Farm Center went a little more than a month between “You got Krushed” chants, but when the student section let loose on Tuesday, they really meant it as the Illini got their first home win since beating Purdue on January 10 by dominating Rutgers, 82-66. Sure, it was Rutgers (6-20, 0-13), who looked likely to have played similarly against a top high school team, and maybe Illinois (12-14, 4-9) should have done better defensively (particularly in the second half). But for the (few) fans who watched, it surely felt good to see a win again.

It was a night of good news for Illini fans, as the win came shortly on the heels of the news alumnus Josh Whitman would be named athletic director. Though the overall picture in the basketball program remains unclear, just having the pieces in place to clarify everything is encouraging. With that in mind, here are my three big takeaways from the win.

Malcolm is Everything

On Monday, Malcolm Hill injured his hamstring in practice. He limped around the floor during the team’s first warm-up and spent time on the exercise bike, came out late and still looked physically bothered during the final warm-up, and generally looked uncomfortable throughout the pregame. This looked like the first step in Illinois losing to the worst team in the Big Ten since ‘99-’01 Northwestern.

Then the game started and Malcolm was his usual, amazing self again. He was active from the tip, betraying any sign of injury with his typical hustle, notching a steal, an assist, 2 rebounds, and 5 points all before the first media timeout. His spark lifted Illinois to a 13-4 lead after four minutes, a lead they would never relinquish.

Hill would play 32 minutes in the blowout, hamstring be damned, before getting some much deserved rest in the final few minutes of play. He notched his sixth double-double in the victory, with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and reminded everyone who cares that no matter his body language, he is 100% committed and is going to be the best player on the floor most nights. Oh yeah, and he hit a three from just outside Philo, too, no big deal.

[gallery il-rutmbb]

Maverick Movin’ Up

Maverick Morgan scored 17 points last night. This is simultaneously about that and not about that. Thing is, Maverick has made shots all year long (58.7% on field goals) because he knows what his shot is: a 10-foot nearly flat jumper or a layup. He has confidence in those shots and they have found the bottom of the net most of the time this year, so there’s been no problem with him taking those shots — they just didn’t come very often.

The big change making all the difference, however, is that Morgan has found a way to use his body to create those shots more. And this happened midseason, which is all the more impressive. When Illinois lost Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black it really seemed like the team was screwed on the interior, and for a while Morgan proved it. But now, he’s on 4 straight games with double-digit points and has tallied 87 points in the last 7 games.

This is important not just Morgan is scoring more, but he’s giving his teammates more of a chance to score. Opponents have to treat him with a little more respect in the paint, potentially freeing up someone on the perimeter, where Illinois’s best scoring threats live. To wit, Illinois had one of its best passing games on Tuesday largely due to the fact that players could find Morgan inside and it wasn’t a given that he would pass it right back out. He backed down defenders several times, and that opened up great new avenues for Illinois’s offense to move.

Youth Movement

No post about future optimism would be complete with contemplating the rise of young players. Luckily, Illinois’s young players have been setting the world on fire lately, showing how they are putting the pieces together to become important cogs this year and moving forward. Their growth has been more due to circumstance than choice, obviously, but the way they are stepping up at this juncture is admirable and inspiring.

Jalen Coleman-Lands came to campus with high expectations, being Groce’s best recruit since Hill and Kendrick Nunn, and did well initially but still looked like a freshman. In the last few months, however, his game has come alive. Against Rutgers he had 9 points, bringing his average in the month of February to 16 points over 30.75 minutes per game. He has shown he plans to be a big part of the offense moving forward.

Likewise, D.J. Williams has been a revelation, not necessarily for his scoring, but for his consistently strong presence on the floor. He had 8 points and 5 rebounds on Tuesday, bringing his total to 28 points and 13 rebounds in 73 minutes over the last 4 games. He’s shown himself to be a tough competitor and someone who can flex between guard and forward adeptly. With a real offseason under his belt, Williams could work his way into being a significant contributor next season.

Next year is still a ways away, and Illinois will certainly hiccup once or twice before this season is done. But looking forward is taking on a decidedly more cheerful hue.

More Articles