Well, that was... interesting. What was nearly the worst loss in Illinois basketball history turned into a pretty exhilarating moment for freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands. Let's just start from the beginning and work our way through this game, shall we?
The Cougars started out hot from the field, hitting two early three-pointers to go up 10-4 before the first media timeout. The Illini went on a quick 10-1 run to erase the deficit, but Chicago State, as they did many times in this game, came right back to punch the Illini in the mouth. They hit 6 of 15 three's in the first half while Illinois went just 3-of-14 from behind the arc, and with less than two minutes to go before the intermission the Cougars opened up their first double-digit lead. Yes, that's right, Illinois was down 36-24 to a team that KenPom has ranked as the 343rd-best team in the nation. The halftime deficit was cut to eight after Malcolm Hill finally scored a couple buckets, but Chicago State managed to score 40 points in the first twenty minutes of play, already the fourth time the Illinois defense has given up that many first-half points this year. Speaking of Malcolm Hill, he and Mike Thorne have made up nearly 50 percent of the Illinois offense this season; they scored a combined four points in the first half.
The second half was a different story, though, as Illinois tried to mount another comeback, something they've unfortunately been accustomed to doing already this year. Led by redshirt freshman Michael Finke and true freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, the Illini went on a 14-0 run and with seven minutes remaining in the game the orange and blue found themselves down only two after being down by as many as fourteen. Their first lead since early in the first half came with under two minutes remaining in the game when Mike Thorne Jr. backed his way to the bucket for a hook shot. It was a back-and-forth affair from there, but Jalen Coleman-Lands finally put the nail in CSU's coffin with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer on a beautifully-drawn-up play by John Groce.
Credit Illinois for not giving up, but, quite frankly, they shouldn't have ever been in the situation they were in against a team as poor as Chicago State. There many things that need fixing, but for now the team can just enjoy the victory. Here are some more detailed takeaways from the game:
1. There's no place like home
I would imagine all of the Illini, except for maybe JCL, are extremely happy to be leaving the Prairie Capital Convention Center. Even though John Groce called Springfield the team's "home away from home," the orange and blue leave nothing but atrocious play and bad memories behind in the capital city. In four games against four mid-major teams the team finished at .500 with a 2-2 overall record. The arena never appeared to be more than three-fourths full and the atmosphere, without the Orange Krush and the band, was lackluster to say the least. Coleman-Lands's game-winner leaves a little bit of a better taste in their mouths, but the Illini will be ready to return to their true home court at the State Farm Center in just over a week.
2. This team has some serious issues
In case you couldn't tell by the Illinois fans on Twitter when the deficit was fourteen to one of the worst division one college basketball teams in the nation, this squad has some problem areas. Every team has things they need to fix. Even the best teams in the country always have a long list of things to patch up. But this Illinois team? It has some really serious, big issues to solve. Specifically on the defensive side of the ball. This is by far the worst a John Groce-coached Illinois team has looked on defense, especially to start a season. From the rotations and allowing wide-open looks on shots from behind the arc, to being too foul-prone and just not making smart decisions on that side of the ball, this team needs to patch up the defense quickly. The Cougars entered this game shooting barely 30 percent from three-point range; they hit 11 three's and shot 45 percent from behind the arc against the Illini. It has been an unfortunate storyline so far this season that Illinois gives up way too many three-pointers. This defense is young and inexperienced, but is also porous and needs some extreme tweaking before conference play begins.
3. Live by the freshman, die by the freshman
Any way you slice it this Illinois team is young. And I'm not talking about the roster, which would include senior Tracy Abrams, juniors Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, and fifth-year senior Mike Thorne Jr. I'm talking about the lineup currently on the court, which includes freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, redshirt freshman Michael Finke, freshman Aaron Jordan, and freshman D.J. Williams. This team is going to make mistakes, but that's part of the development process as the younger kids grow up. There will be tough times (cue up Finke missing a game-winning putback dunk) but there will also be bright spots (look no further than tonight's game-winner). Until the injured veterans can finally return to the court, this team is going to live and die by the freshman.
4. Where's Leron Black?
This is a mystery to me. Black, who was coming off an off-season surgical procedure, was probable for the first game of the year against North Florida but did not play because Groce said he needed "a few more days." That seemed to be the case as Leron returned to the lineup against North Dakota State in the team's second matchup of the season and played nearly 20 minutes. But then, after appearing perfectly healthy and receiving postgame praise from the coach, Black's minutes dropped off at an alarming rate and nearly disappeared. He played three minutes against Providence (partly because of foul trouble) and seven minutes against Chattanooga. He logged zero minutes tonight. He has yet to hit ten points scored this year. Is Groce still easing Black back into the rotation, or is something from the knee surgery still having a lingering effect for Leron?
The Illini will travel to northwest Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic. Their first game of the tournament will be on Friday night when they take on the UAB Blazers. If they were to win that game they would take on the winner of Iowa State/Virginia Tech (most likely the Cyclones). Then the orange and blue will finally return to their true home court at the State Farm Center for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against Notre Dame on December 2nd.
PS - Other than JCL's buzzer-beater, let's never talk about this game again, shall we?