Two wins are two wins, but not all wins are created equal. The Illini made it through the first weekend of the season with a perfect record, as pretty much everyone expected them to, but they did it in very different ways.
Maybe Illinois considered the game Friday night against Georgia Southern fait accompli, and their opponent was better served saving on airfare. I wrote as much in my preview, as did many others, and maybe some of it sank into the players’ heads, leading to a little hubris.
But I think there’s more that led to a tie at halftime and Illinois eventually scraping by on just a 9-point win. It was couched gently in John Groce’s words after the game, but it was there and I’m certain the players heard it more forcefully afterward.
“This was a great lesson. Guys who practiced well played well tonight,” the third-year head coach said after the game on Friday. The subtext being that, even at this point of the season, when the games count for something real, guys were not putting forth the kind of effort they needed to in practice and it translate to the game.
Groce pointed to Rayvonte Rice (24 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists) and Aaron Cosby (16 points, 6 rebounds) as guys who were giving it all against Georgia Southern, but he didn’t name names of players who weren’t going 100%. He didn’t have to, though, because they did that to themselves.
Nnana Egwu, for instance, who was just named a team captain, had 2 fouls 4 minutes into the game and pulled down just 1 rebound all game; it certainly seems like he may have been sleeping through a practice or two. The same could be said for the first man off the bench to back him up, Maverick Morgan, who hit the first field goal of the game and then looked awful and saw his minutes taken away by Austin Colbert (who did great, which was certainly surprising to me).
Among the others there were definitely some first game-type of errors—Leron Black giving up the middle early in the game, Ahmad Starks only dishing out 2 assists, Aaron Cosby’s miserable first half—and those were to be expected, as those guys were playing literally their first real game with the Illini. But the questions raised by Groce’s comments about practice effort seemed far more pressing.
Then Illinois played Coppin State on Sunday and shot the damn lights out. All the words to describe a 114-56 game—rout, blowout, demolition—kind of fall short, because this Illini victory was so thorough and complete that even 6’ walk-on guard Mike Latulip came up with 3 rebounds. It kind of made the whole Georgia Southern game and the questions about practice seem unimportant.
On Sunday Illinois shot 55.4% (53% from behind the arc), but the most impressive thing is that no individual player scored more than 18 points. Ten of the 12 players on the floor for Illinois scored, six in double digits. It was a complete team game, with good energy from the whistle.
The biggest standouts against Coppin State were Leron Black (18 points, 8 rebounds in just his second game), Ahmad Starks (18 points, 5 assists), and Malcolm Hill (13 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists). But the little things the team did were just as impressive, like Jaylon Tate’s 7 assists, Ray Rice’s amazing hustle all over the court, Kendrick Nunn’s jumpshot and swagger, or the way three-pointers are drawn like magnets from the hands of Starks (4/6) and Aaron Cosby (5/7) through the bottom of the hoop.
If you’re feeling pessimistic, Nnanna Egwu only had 2 rebounds (out of 50 total for Illinois) and scored just 6 points in 18 minutes. The duo of Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert didn’t stand out on Sunday when they came in for Egwu, either. Then there’s the fact that Coppin State is really a bad team (they lost to Oregon 107-65 on Friday), so maybe this whole game should be taken with a grain of salt.
It was hard to walk away from the game on Sunday feeling like what the Illini did wasn’t impressive, though. Who knows what it means for the rest of the season, but it’s exciting here and now.