It came down to the final possessions in Evanston, but the Illinois Fighting Illini (12-6, 2-3) managed to pull out their second conference victory of the season. Sophomore shooting guard Kendrick Nunn led the way with a career-high 25 points and 5 rebounds on 8/13 shooting (4/7 3PT). Aaron Cosby also chipped in 19 points in what was his best performance of the season.
The Illini will now travel back to Champaign to prepare for their second home game of the conference slate against the Indiana Hoosiers. Before that, here are some observations from Illinois' win over Northwestern.
1. Kendrick Nunn was fantastic
Kendrick Nunn played fantastic on Wednesday. We touched on his stats above, but tonight was the first time Nunn looked 100% after his offseason knee surgery. He's always been a sharpshooter from long range, but he was explosively driving to the hoop for the first time all season. Groce was putting the ball in his hands and he was making plays--kinda like this one:
Kendrick Nunn can FLYYYYYYY pic.twitter.com/vknNODeHyX— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) January 15, 2015
2. Is Malcolm Hill hurt?
Malcolm Hill iced the game with a few late free throws, but overall he had a relatively quiet night as he finished with 10 points on 3/9 shooting.
However the announcers picked up on something a bit troubling during the second half. Hill was noticeably limping towards the end of the game--It'll be something to keep an eye on over the next few days.
2. Jaylon Tate needs to be playing 30 min/night
Jaylon Tate has to be Illinois' number one option at point guard going forward. He's started the last three games, but Ahmad Starks has been getting more minutes. The offense is run so much more smoothly with Tate at the reigns--plus his defense has been better than Starks.
Tate was no where to be found late in the game against the Wildcats and that was presumably because of free throw shooting. However, that should't really be an excuse as he's shooting a respectable 80% on the year.
3. Illinois defense really struggles with Morgan in the game
Illinois really struggles on the defensive end whenever Nnanna Egwu goes to the bench--mostly because Maverick Morgan is thrown into the fire against the opposing big man.
Groce tried to compensate by switching to zone while Morgan was in--and it worked. However, for some reason the team transitioned back to man defense and the lack of post presence was again exposed.
4. Starks' shot selection is just brutal
This is part of the reason why Jaylon Tate needs to be playing more. Starks' shot selection is just terrible each and every game. He, admittedly, did a better job of driving and shooting mid-range pull up jumpers tonight, but he's still taking way too many bad shots.
When Starks takes a three he's either shooting from 28 feet out, has a foot on the line, or there's a hand in his face. Groce gives his players a lot of freedom on offense, but he needs to start reeling Starks in.
5. Is this the real Aaron Cosby?
Aaron Cosby was phenomenal against the Wildcats. He made four early three's en route to 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. Something that Cosby doesn't get enough credit for, however, is his defense. His offensive production slowed down in the second half, but he was still able to make a positive impact on the defensive end throughout the entire game.
So this performance begs the question--is Cosby back to his normal self? We'll obviously have to wait and see, but this effort was extremely encouraging. Hopefully he can duplicate it against the Hoosiers.
6. This was a fun game
It's been real hard to watch the Illini the past several times out, but tonight was fun. Both teams were making plays, crowd was into it, and p
Hats off to Northwestern for their performance. They had opportunities to fold throughout the contest, but never did and stayed close until the end.
Illinois Fighting Illini: