Let’s hand out some grades to players, coaches, uniforms or whatever deserved a grade. The Illini defeated DePaul 82-73 in their first true test of the season as a part of the Gavitt Games on Friday night.
Mark Smith: A+
The Freshman from Edwardsville led the Illini in scoring with a career high 21 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists. Smith went 12-12 from the free throw line and showed off his superb strength early and often. Smith is already the best finisher around the hoop on the team. The way he absorbs contact, hangs and adjusts is so natural. He makes it look so incredibly easy. His touch around the rim and use of angles is very rare for someone that young. His elite combination of speed and strength allows him to get a layup attempt or get to the line at will. If Smith can get a few three pointers to fall, he is going to be a nightmare for Big Ten coaches to gameplan for.
The Kipper-Led Bench Mob: A
Kipper Nichols also poured in a career high 16 points on 6-11 from the field and 2-3 from three. Nichols has already surpassed most of the expectations he had coming in as an unknown freshman last year. He has played like an upperclassman early on in his sophomore season. Kipper’s biggest strength is that he does not have a glaring weakness out on the floor. He can do whatever the team needs on any given night.
Aaron Jordan, Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier also played tremendously off the bench. Jordan’s defense has been off the charts. He made at least two key strips as a Blue Demon was attempting to drive by him. He showed flashes last year of his defensive potential, and I thought that would get him on the court a bit more this year, but no one expected the consistent production he has shown thus far.
Da’Monte Williams does all the little things. I know that’s cliche, but for a freshman, it’s really high praise. He takes charges, digs out rebounds, and understands defense. Very rarely does Da’Monte leave you scratching your head, or blow a defensive assignment. Williams is already doing the little things, and his strength and skills are only going to improve.
The Uniforms: A
The white throwbacks for Illinois and the sleek black design for DePaul were the only pretty thing about this game.
Post Defense: C+
Marin Maric had a field day early on, and the Illini were lucky he was in foul trouble for the majority of the game. Maric had 12 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes before fouling out on Friday night. The Illini are going to see far more talented big men in the Big Ten, and are going to need someone besides Michael Finke to step up and battle down low. However, the positive note is that the Illini love taking charges. You can tell that is something the coaching staff is really emphasizing with this young team. Without elite rim protectors, taking charges is one of the other ways the Illini will try to defend the post.
Te’Jon Lucas and Leron Black were hampered the most from foul trouble. In his postgame press conference, Underwood mentioned how his teams often rack up a lot of fouls, and that Te’Jon has picked up a foul in the first minute of all three games so far. Those early fouls will change how a player approaches defense and approaches a game. If Lucas can go a few minutes without fouling, it will be much easier for him to find his rhythm and be the leader that Illinois needs.
Black fouled out in only 17 minutes tonight. Luckily, Nichols, Jordan and the freshmen were able to step up and produce with key starters battling foul trouble. But moving forward, the Illini starters will need to find a way to stay on the court. Their skill and presence is far too valuable to be stuck on the bench.
The Illini had 18 turnovers on Monday and Alstork led the team with 4 turnovers in 17 minutes. The Illini also had 18 turnovers against UT-Martin. This is a young team, in a new offense, trying to play fast. So the turnovers aren’t necessarily a surprise. These turnover numbers should go down as the season moves forward. They are still building the necessary chemistry to be efficient on both sides of the floor. When they become more comfortable and efficient as a unit, there will be fewer instances where we see players force the issue, or make the incorrect read.