Smile Politely

Dr. Orangelove or: How Groce learned to love the freshmen

Nothing went wrong. Nothing even seemed like it could go wrong after about 10 minutes of basketball. It was an incredible display and fun as hell to watch.

But Illinois’s blow out of Michigan, 85-69, kinda makes you scratch your head and wonder, ‘Where has this team been?’

Things were different this evening, obviously. Head coach John Groce went with a new lineup for the first time in 10 games, re-inserting Maverick Morgan in at center for Mike Thorne. It was a small change, and not an unexpected one (Morgan had seen much more time on the floor even when he started on the bench), but it felt like a breath of fresh air.

The next change was more dramatic, with Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols the first guys to come off the bench. Again, not an unexpected move, but still change in the rotation that felt like it put new life into the Illini (12-5, 2-2).

Lucas had been averaging under 8 minutes per game, firmly in the backseat to senior Jaylon Tate (and his 3.0 points/game). The graph below, depicting their minutes played over the first 16 games could also illustrate fans levels of frustration, with increases in Tate’s line representing increases in fan anxiety.

On Wednesday night, however, the script was flipped and Lucas played 23 outstanding minutes while Tate was a healthy did-not-play. The senior’s absence wasn’t missed, though, as Te’Jon dished out 8 assists to just 1 turnover and added 5 points (including a big three at the end of the shot clock on his first possession). Those numbers are flat-out good, no qualifiers for him being a freshman or playing a career high in minutes — Lucas did what a point guard is supposed to do.

But if Lucas was good, Nichols was great. The redshirt freshman, who transferred from Tulane and was ineligible through the first semester, came into this year as a wild card. Fans liked what they heard about him, but had no idea how that could translate. He got a good run for the first time against Indiana and showed promise, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted a game like he had against Michigan.

Nichols was a ferocious presence in the front court, playing much bigger than he stands (6’6”). He had 13 points and 8 rebounds in 19 minutes: he was efficient (18.0 rating) with a high usage (27.7%), the definition of quality.

The change in the starting lineup and the rotation did not just pay off for Lucas and Nichols, though. No, Illinois as a team played like its best self.

The Illini had a fantastic 1.39 points per possession against the Wolverines. The team had been averaging 1.11 coming into the game. The offense was benefitted by the fact that Michigan played defense as optional, but credit to Illinois for taking it to the visitors consistently. Six players finished with double-digit scoring, including Nichols, Jalen Coleman-Lands (12), Leron Black (10), Malcolm Hill (15), Morgan (16), and Michael Finke (13). As a team, the Illini shot made 34 of 53 field goals, which is 64.2%, the third-highest percentage for the team this decade. The Illini also assisted 21 of those field goals, which is obviously a credit to Lucas (who accounted for a third of those) but also exemplifies an impressive effort by the whole team.

Though it was still not fantastic, Illinois’s defense was improved in this game. Besides beating the Wolverines by 16 points, the most impressive defensive metric to illustrate the host’s dominance was their 22-13 rebounding advantage. Michigan is the worst rebounding team in the Big Ten, but the Illini held them below their season average (23) by limiting them to just 17 on Wednesday.

As the season draws ever nearer to its completion, games are starting to feel more urgent. After a bad game at Indiana and odd news just before tip about DJ Williams leaving the Illini for personal reasons (with rumors swirling that he will be transferring), the expectation of an Illinois win on Wednesday had an urgency unlike previous games. There’s still work to do and games to win, but Groce embraced change and got the best performance from his team in a long, long time.

It makes you wonder if it can keep on this way, though.

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