This is more like what Illini fans should expect; not 100 points a night, not the nation’s top scoring team. In an up-and-down contest against Brown on Monday night, Illinois had overcome a halftime deficit to win 89-68 (they still ended the game with the second highest average points per game, 97.5, for those who care).
There were several reasons this game was a challenge for Illinois (4-0), first and foremost being cold shooting in the first half. Head coach John Groce calls this team the best shooting team he’s coached, but shooters like Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby, and Kendrick Nunn are prone to hot and cold streaks — even if it didn’t seem that way in the two 100-point games.
In the first half the Illini were just 11-36 (30.6%) from the field. Nnanna Egwu finally started pulling in rebounds, grabbing 6 in the first half, but only Ray Rice was making a difference on offense, scoring 9 to keep the game tight (he would finish with 15 and 10 rebounds for his second double-double as an Illini). The second half was much more like the Coppin State or Austin Peay games, however, with Illinois shooting 73% (19/26).
“[Brown] played with more toughness, more of a sense of urgency in first half,” Groce said. “In the second half we turned it up.”
Aaron Cosby was the spark for Illinois at the beginning of the second half, scoring 11 points in just the first four minutes of the half. He would finish the game with 18, but would admit that his outburst was only possible because of the better effort, turning it up in Groce’s words, on defense.
“First half we were trying to outscore them instead of stop them,” Cosby said.
In the second half the Illini had active hands from the start. They used their length to swat at every ball they could and pester Brown more on defense. Groce readily admitted that Brown beat his team with well-executed screens multiple times on defense, but when his guys got tough, that was less effective. Illinois did better scoring off turnovers, too, going from 4 points off 8 turnovers in the first half to 11 points off 5 turnovers in the second half.
After three games I think every Illini fan felt what was happening was too good to be true, and Monday showed that likely was the case. But Illinois still turned a 4-point halftime deficit into a 21-point victory, so there’s still plenty to be excited about. The challenge that Brown provided was a welcome one for Groce, as his team will see a step-up in talent as they travel to the Las Vegas Invitational.
“Talent gets better each game [in Vegas] and I like that,” he said.
In Vegas, Illinois will take on Indiana State (3-1) and Memphis (1-1) or Baylor (4-0). Groce feels confident in his team, however, and with the depth he has at his disposal his confidence may be more than coach speak. Against Brown Illinois once again had 5 players in double digits–Cosby (18), Rice (15), Nunn (12), Malcolm Hill (11), and Leron Black (10)–as well as fresh legs off the bench whenever needed. Jaylon Tate, for instance, continued playing well despite not scoring as much, increasing his assist to turnover ratio to 17:4.
With the ability to make hockey-style line changes and not lose shooting or ball handling, the increased talent on the other side of the ball may not be enough to throttle this Illinois team, even if it is enough to slow down the awe-inspiring shooting of the 100-point games. Time will tell how the Illini handles tougher opposition, but at least fans know a little bit better what to expect.