Illinois’s win on Saturday was, in every way, the opposite of its loss against Iowa three days previous. In beating Northwestern 86-60 the Illini (18-11, 8-8) moved the ball beautifully, got Nnanna Egwu inside touches, shot the ball with deadly accuracy, and never gave their opponent a sniff of the lead. It was gorgeous team play, everything that was missing in the loss that preceded it.
From the tip, Illinois was in control. Kendrick Nunn looked like the Kendrick Nunn of old when he drained the first basket of the game from behind the three-point arc and the rest of the team followed his lead. Malcolm Hill was next to hit a three, then Ahmad Starks, then Rayvonte Rice, and then Northwestern coach Chris Collins had to call a time out because Illinois had gone on a 12-2 run in two-and-a-half minutes and the State Farm Center was rocking.
Collins’ timeout couldn’t stop the flow of Illini threes, though, as the hosts stayed red hot all game and made 14 of 29 from long distance. Contrasted with Illinois’s terrible shooting against Iowa (7/21 from three, 19/57 on all field goals), this game looks even better. After the win, coach John Groce said this game was a reflection of the players who put in a good practice between games, echoing the coaching cliché that you play how you practice. Clearly, there’s something to it, however.
Comparing this game with the loss to Iowa isn’t entirely fair, as Northwestern has half as many conference wins as the Hawkeyes. But the only team hotter than Northwestern before Saturday’s game was Purdue, and the Wildcats were fresh off beating Indiana in Bloomington, so beating this NU team should not be discounted.
And, really, it was the way in which Illinois beat Northwestern that was most impressive. The Illini dismantled the opposing defense, unlocking them with 15 assists on 27 field goals. It started with the point guard play of Starks and Jaylon Tate, who marshaled the offense and ran the ball into the post when necessary to keep the Wildcats off balance. The dismantling ended with the Illini’s incredible shooting, of which almost everyone played a part in.
Five Illini were in double figures against Northwestern, a feat common in early nonconference games and not since. Rice was the scoring leader, dropping 19, including a string of three consecutive three pointers. Right behind him was Starks, with 17, keeping his hot hand from the Iowa game. Hill and Nunn, both of whom were nearly invisible in Iowa City, rebounded with enthusiasm and scored 15 and 14, respectively.
Along with Egwu as a conduit in the post, this group of five was a dynamic starting group: one Groce may be well advised to ride with for a while. The biggest disappointment in the Iowa loss was the lack of togetherness, a facet of play Groce stresses ad nauseam. On Saturday, though, there was great chemistry between this group, and it flowed through to other rotations and gave the Illini a great, cohesive playing style. The togetherness on display Saturday even helped the bench players, immensely.
Leron Black, once again on the bench, did not let the move faze him, grabbing 6 rebounds and scoring 4 points. Austin Colbert also continued to give solid minutes off the bench, playing what Groce called “the best basketball of his life”; the sophomore had 5 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes. The best performance off the bench came from Maverick Morgan, however. In recent games Morgan has looked thoroughly over-matched by the opposition and has often seemed like a liability more than an asset on the floor. Against Northwestern he was anything but, nearly racking up a double-double, with 10 points and 8 rebounds.
This performance, start to finish, is exactly what fans want to see from Illinois, and at the right time. The Illini have to carry this performance forward into their final two regular season games to help clinch an NCAA Tourney berth, but also to get a better seed in the Big Ten Tournament (and avoid Wisconsin). If the team can play with as much togetherness as they had against the Wildcats, which is as much as Groce expects every game, they are very capable of achieving their goals. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.