The Fighting Illini won their fourth straight game Saturday, beating South Dakota 91-79. Illinois never trailed.
Malcolm Hill finished with a career high 34 points and added on 11 rebounds while Jalen Coleman-Lands scored 17 and Michael Finke had 13. As a team, the Illini shot 14-30 from beyond the arc (46.7%) marking the most threes in a game this season. JCL was especially good, hitting four threes of his own. Here are the major takeaways:
Illinois is becoming an anti-turnover team
This team has gotten especially good at not turning the ball over on offense. While they logged eight turnovers today, there was not one given up over the first twelve minutes of the game. Coming into today, Illinois was 24th in the nation in turnovers per game with 10.5. In the postgame press conference, Groce noted that this is becoming a crucial component of the Illini identity as the season wears on. Last year, Illinois ranked top in the nation in free throw percentage. This year, protecting the ball has become a stronger part of who this team is. Hopefully, this will continue.
Malcolm Hill had an All-Big Ten game
Not only did Hill score a career-high 34 points, he was able to notch a double-double, grabbing 11 boards and dishing out 5 assists. he is now averaging 18.5 PPG on the season, which ranks third in the Big Ten behind Jarrod Uthoff and Denzel Valentine. It's becoming more clear why John Groce calls him the butcher, the baker and the candle maker: Malcolm has been doing it all.
Possibly of more importance, he makes everybody around him better. The five assists were crucial, hitting open shooters like JCL or interior scorers like Finke in the post. He possesses a point guard-like knack for finding the open man, and this will continue to be important for Illinois going forward.
Illinois still needs to get better at maintaining the lead
Despite jumping out to a 20 point advantage in the second half, the Illini let the Coyotes back into the game, holding onto a two possession lead with just a couple minutes remaining. If Illinois had not been able to make some key shots down the final stretch of the game (see Finke), this could have been another one that they could have dropped to a mid-major opponent.
The Illini defense was also significantly better in the first half than the second. Illinois entered the half with a 55-36 lead, only to see it dwindle late. Coming out of the tunnel flat has been a problem for this team throughout the whole season, and it will need to be addressed before they enter the conference slate.
Illinois, now 7-5, faces off against Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis this Wednesday. Unfortunately, both teams are pretty sluggish so far this season so there's no guarantee it will be a great game to watch. That being said, the energy is usually great so the Illini should try to take advantage of it early. A full preview will be up later this week.