For the first 32 minutes of the Emerald Coast Classic championship game, Illinois and Iowa State looked nearly on par. The newly healthy Illini were getting serious production from juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, and the defense appeared much improved. But soon after, the team started forcing shots, leading to a 16-4 run by the Cyclones. Iowa State never looked back as they steamrolled the rest of the way to an 84-73 finish. Here are the big storylines from the loss.
1. Welcome to the Hill and Nunn show
These two juniors did everything for the Illini tonight. Malcolm Hill was spectacular, creating shots and knocking down 20 of his own points. Given the mismatch at the three position, he was able to exploit the Cyclone defense in and around the paint. He also finished 4-7 from beyond the arc. Nunn was key as well, going for 19 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Ever since his return, the team has looked revitalized on both ends of the floor. His presence from three point range as well as his ability to make accurate passes brings a new dimension that this team has been lacking. Both will need to keep it up, especially when facing off against a ranked Notre Dame team this coming Wednesday. The team goes as they do.
2. Every Groce has its Thorne
After a very productive start to the game (10 points, 7 rebounds), Mike Thorne Jr. left the game with an apparent left knee injury. In his postgame press conference, Groce stated he did not yet know the condition of his big man and was waiting on the medical staff to determine if Thorne needed to get examined in Florida or back at home. Obviously, this is a big loss for the Illini and represents the latest injury in the ongoing series of M*A*S*H*: Illini Edition. Hopefully the injury is minor and we will see him in the starting lineup Wednesday. Without his presence under the hoop, Illinois got out-rebounded in the second half big time by an athletic Iowa State frontcourt. Georges Niang was nothing short of a beast, and that's what the Cyclones needed him to be.
3. Bear with it, things are getting better...probably
The biggest takeaway from the trip to Florida is that Illinois is steadily improving. As they get healthier, its clear they can compete on a high level with many of the bigger boys on the block. Be it not for a breakdown around the eight minute mark, Illinois was in this game from start to finish. Perhaps the greatest sight was better ball movement, on one possession Nunn had a sweet drive-and-dish to Hill who knocked down a wide open three. If this "back against the wall" style of play persists, the Illini are going to be in a really good spot. Key word: if.
Finally! Illinois returns to the State Farm Center this Wednesday for the first time since the major renovations took place, and to be honest, most of us are excited just to get the hell out of Springfield. The Illini face a tough task against the #17 Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Big Ten/ACC challenge, but should have a solid shot, especially with the home crowd behind them. It tips at 8:15 CT on ESPN2.
(Sidenote: screw CBS Sports Net).