Tonight, the Illinois Fighting Illini (18-11, 8-8) put together their most complete effort of the 2014-15 season; the team took an early 12-2 lead over the Northwestern Wildcats (14-15, 5-11) and never looked back. The 86-60 blowout win brought the Wildcats' four-game Big Ten win streak to a screeching halt and kept Illinois' NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Northwestern started out in a zone, but the Illini came out scorching from behind the arch as the team connected on their first four looks; this was just a sign of what was yet to come and Illinois finished with an astounding 14 three's. Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 19 points and 7 rebounds, while Alex Olah managed to gain 18 points for Northwestern.
1. Ball Movement
Against Iowa, and pretty much the entire season for that matter, Illinois would start trying to play hero ball on the offensive end. That wasn't the case tonight as the Illini racked up 15 assists on the night (in comparison, they only had 9 dimes against Iowa). Good things happened when the ball was passed to Nnanna Egwu down low. He was making great cross-court passes and it resulted in some wide open shots for Kendrick Nunn, Ahmad Starks, Malcolm Hill, and Rayvonte Rice. We haven't seen the Illini move the ball inside-and-out like that the entire season. It was a refreshing change from the often stagnant pick-and-roll sets and it allowed the game to move at a much better pace.
2. Rayvonte Rice is Back
For his first few games back Rayvonte Rice was showing great hustle and effort, but the offensive production wasn't quite what we were used to. He was back to his good old self on Saturday night. Rice went on a personal 9-0 run early in the second half by hitting three straight threes. He was driving and rebounding and Northwestern just couldn't do anything to stop him the entire game. The best part about his performance? He wasn't forcing the ball and let Nunn and Hill take their fair share of shots. Rice will need to continue to play a big role over the next couple of games if Illinois hopes to make it to the tournament
3. This Team is Locked In
You could tell that Coach John Groce had the team ready for this game. His squad came out and smacked Northwestern in the chin (kinda like Tim Beckman did) and never let up. Everyone was giving max effort and realized how much this game meant. Hopefully they can bring the same intensity against Nebraska and Purdue.
Also, we've started to see the development of some role players. Today, Maverick Morgan had perhaps the best game of his Illini career with 10 points and 8 rebounds. Austin Colbert has continued to 'surge' as he scored 5 points including a three pointer (see, EVERYONE was hitting them). Coach Groce has this team in NCAA Tournament mode, as Stephen Bardo put it, at just the right time.
Next up is Nebraska at home on Wednesday for Senior Night. After that is the final game of the regular season against Purdue in West Lafayette. Tonight's win over Northwestern doesn't really help Illinois' tournament chances, but it certainly doesn't hurt. As it stands now, the Illini still need to win their final two games and the last contest at Purdue could very likely be a 'play-in game' for both teams.