Let’s hand out some grades to players, coaches, uniforms, mascots or whatever deserved a grade. Illinois got it’s first win Friday night by a score of 102-55 over Southern University. There was a lot to like and a few things to improve upon.
Getting to the Free Throw Line: A+
The Illini shot 34-37 from the free throw line. Everything about that sentence deserves an A+. Shooting 92% from the line is incredible and also unsustainable, but it’s a great start. For context, the 2014-15 team led the nation in FT% at 79.4%. However, if they are going to shoot 30 free throws a game, 75% from the line will do just fine. The Illini only shot 37+ free throws one time last year against Detroit. In fact, in the entire John Groce era, the Illini only shot 37+ free throws three times. The other contests were against Chicago St. in Springfield and a nonconference matchup vs Auburn in 2012. This production from the free throw line may not be sustainable, but it is encouraging to see a change in approach on offense for the Illini right from the jump of the Underwood era.
Kipper Nichols: A
Much like the EIU scrimmage, it seemed like Kipper was in the middle of all of the action for the Illini. He had 14 points with only 2 rebounds and no assists. His activity throughout the game would suggest his rebounding and assist numbers would be higher. Coming into the season I didn’t know how Underwood was going to be able to keep Nichols out of the starting lineup. But after one game, he looks like the perfect 6th man to lead a a young, inexperienced bench unit. Nichols is the ultimate glue guy or X Factor for this team. He can guard on the perimeter and in the post. He is a strong rebounder and has great touch around the rim, and he can hit the open three. He showed all of these things last night. If you get a chance, just watch Nichols, not the ball, for a few possessions next game. I bet Nichols gets highlighted in the film room quite a bit for what Underwood expects, whether it’s running hard, setting good screens, or playing tough consistent defense.
On Ball Guard Defense: A
The Illini ball pressure was superb from the jump. This grade really goes out to Te’Jon Lucas and Trent Frazier, as they were often the front porch of the defense. They did a terrific job of setting the tone on Friday. The Illini had 8 steals and forced 22 total turnovers. This ball pressure took Southern out of their rhythm and made it difficult for them to run their offense. With good guard depth, and lack of front court depth, the Illini showed that they can afford some early foul trouble from their guards. Without any true rim protectors, the Illini are going to need their guards to harass the opposition on the perimeter all season long.
Mark Alstork: A-
Alstork scored 17 points on 4-8 from the field and 9-10 from the line. Alstork looked slightly uncomfortable early on. He missed a few early threes and didn’t have great rhythm in the Illini’s first few possessions. However, even though his three point shot wasn’t falling (0-3), he stayed aggressive and found different ways to score. He had a few really pretty drives to the rim, but most importantly he was 9-10 from the free throw line. Underwood spoke about Alstork’s elite ability to get to the line and he showed that off on Friday. Alstork also added to his scoring with 10 rebounds to lead the Illini. He also tallied 4 assists.
The defensive aggressiveness brought with it some early foul trouble. Lucas and Williams picked up a few early ones, but foul trouble was really not much of a concern in Friday’s blowout. However, as the competition improves it will be important for this team to find a balance of playing aggressively while staying out of foul trouble. Mark Smith was also in a bit of foul trouble and finished the game with 4 personal fouls. That may have taken him out of his rhythm early on.
3 Point Shooting: D+
The Illini shot 19% from three on 21 attempts. It’s important to remember that we are working with small sample sizes this weekend. However, going 4-21 from three isn’t exactly the best start. Trent Frazier, Mark Alstork and Michael Finke went a combined 0-11 from three. Those are probably the best shooters on the roster. Going forward, the Illini should be able to count on at least 30% from that threesome. The good news is that the Illini scored 102 points while only making 4 three pointers. That concept wasn’t even fathomable under the last staff, regardless of the opponent. Most of the 21 attempts were open looks in the flow of the offense, and there were very few poor shots taken.