An early 25-0 run set the tone for the Illini and the outcome was never in doubt. After taking a 54-18 lead into the half, the Fighting Illini never let up on their way to a dominant win over Kennesaw State. Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill led the way for Illinois with a combined 37 points on 13/14 shooting.
There will undoubtedly still be questions surrounding this Illini squad, but it appears that they've identified and fixed their problems on offense. Of course, hitting shots always helps, but the execution of set plays and ball movement were great tonight. Those two areas were non-existent over the previous five games.
The Illini will have a few days off before they start conference play. The team will travel to Ann Arbor on Tuesday night to open against a struggling Michigan Wolverines squad. Road games against No. 21 Ohio State and Nebraska as well as a home contest against No. 15 Maryland will certainly test Illinois early on. Despite this, a final non-conference record of 10-3, puts the team in a good position for a potential tournament appearance as the calendar turns to B1G season.
Before all that, here's what we learned from Saturday night's game:
3 Things We Learned:
1. It's Rayvonte Rice's world, we're all just living in it
The senior SF is ready for the Big Ten. Rice finished the night with 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists on 7/7 shooting.
There are bound to be concerns about a repeat of Rice's 2013-14 conference season, but fans have to remember that he was playing hurt last year. Assuming he stays healthy, Rice will have a monster season. He's a smarter, more efficient player this time around and that's bad news for B1G opponents. If he keeps this type of play up, he may just hear his name called at the upcoming NBA draft.
2. Offense is better with Jaylon Tate at PG
Illinois' ball movement may not be fantastic when Tate is in at Point Guard, but it's lightyears ahead of the Starks-run version. It's hard to actually quantify this observation, but it's been fairly evident over the past several weeks.
When Tate is in game the ball is usually swung across the court without hesitation. The opposing defense is constantly on the move, creating more driving opportunities for Illinois. The transition game also receives a boost from Tate; he tends to push the ball up the court much quicker than Starks.
Tate's special passing ability has been a constant throughout his young career at Illinois, but the improvements in his decision making and overall offensive game have been impressive. I'm not ready to say that he should be starting ahead of Starks, but it's a conversation that many fans will start having.
3. The rotation appears to be set
Ahmad Starks, Kendrick Nunn, Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill, Nnanna Egwu starting with Leron Black, Aaron Cosby, Jaylon Tate, and Maverick Morgan coming off the bench.
This may seem relatively straightforward, but Groce has experimenting with the team's substitutions all season. With Big Ten play literally around the corner, it's a good thing that the individual roles are virtually set.
Kennesaw State Owls: