Smile Politely

Illini duo batter Boilermakers

Honestly, for the first time in some time, Illinois basketball was really fun to watch. And no one really saw it coming.

Two things made this a reality:

  1. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn played like all-stars.
  2. John Groce came up with a game plan to beat Purdue and Illinois executed it flawlessly. That’s how Illinois avoided going 0-4 to start Big Ten play for the first time since 2007-08 and won 84-70.

Thursday night represented one of the worst losses, arguably the worst, in John Groce’s tenure Thursday night, 54-79 at #5 Michigan State. So, coming into Sunday’s contest against #20 Purdue, there was little expectation, perhaps even little hope. Sure, Nunn would be back after missing a game to be at the birth of his first child (for which he deserves a whole-hearted and sincere bravo and congratulations), but this team would still be lacking any size against the best defensive team in the country.

Then, Illinois (9-8, 1-3) went out and did what it had to do: play its best game all year.

Credit to Groce and his staff for recognizing areas to exploit against the Boilermakers (14-3, 2-2). One knock on AJ Hammons, one of the nation’s best centers, is that he plays best against other bigs. Luckily(?), Illinois really have no bigs to speak of, so putting a small-ball game plan together naturally emphasized the strengths of this Illini team. From there, it was all about execution.

And execute the Illini did. Hammons looked out of sorts all night, the kind of disinterested player he has not been in years. His fellow seven-footer, Isaac Haas, was also taken off his game, at one point being blocked by Hill, who was resurgent after a couple of off games. The two seven footers combined for just 16 points, and the Boilermakers’ entire starting lineup had just 34, as Illinois’s defense locked down.

On offense, it was obvious early on this was going to be a good night for Hill. The junior led all scorers at halftime with 13, and continued his tear through the second half. He finished with 30 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and a pair of blocks. New father Nunn started the game in a lull (perhaps from lack of sleep, understandably), but came alive after halftime. With the score knotted at 37, he scored the first 9 points of the half to put Illinois in front, a lead that turned out to be permanent. Nunn finished the game with 22 points and 4 rebounds.

As a team, Illinois shot 54% marking the first time in Groce’s tenure they’ve shot above 50% in a Big Ten game. Coming against a Purdue team that had allowed opponents an average of just 61 points per game, well that made it even more special.

Going forward it seems like this could be a big building block for Groce’s team. Just three of Illinois’s next 10 opponents currently have records above .500 in Big Ten play, plus Illinois gets a week off to rest and plan for the next game. Of course, any optimism about the Illini is coming from a peak, whereas the view from the valley (e.g., after the Michigan State loss) was rather bleak. The Big Ten is always a dogfight, and Illinois showed exactly why teams can’t look past any opponent in the win over Purdue. But, at least for now, there’s some sun shining on the Illini and fans can hold out hope for a better season than seemed in store.

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