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Illinois continues undefeated start behind Kipper Nichols’ double-double

The Illini stormed past the Marshall Thundering Herd on Sunday afernoon.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Kipper Nichols was ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules less than one year ago. Now he may be Illinois’ most productive player.

Nichols, a redshirt sophomore, notched his first-career double-double Sunday night in a 91-74 win over Marshall.

He scored a team-high 17 points off of the bench, tied by forward Leron Black. Nichols also added 11 rebounds, including three on the offensive glass, and only turned the ball over once.

"How many times did you see him get a rebound tonight and lead the break?" Illinois head coach Brad Underwood rhetorically asked the media at his postgame press conference about Nichols.

Nichols took 12 shots to get his 17 points, but he was aided by eight trips to the free throw line, sinking seven of them.

Underwood praised Nichols’ versatility in finding ways to score.

"Kipper is a guy that can step out and shoot a three,” Underwood said. “We can put him in isolation. He can post up."

A Cleveland native, Nichols sat out the first half of last season after transferring from Tulane. He appeared in 21 games and averaged 4.9 points and 2.9 rebounds on the season.

This season is a different story, especially on the offensive end. He has at least 14 points in three of Illinois’ first four games.

"Getting those game reps has really been helping me,” Nichols said.

While Nichols seems to be a very different player so far in 2017, some teammates don’t see much different in him — except his bigger afro.

“(Kipper’s) the same player that I’ve been with,” forward Leron Black said. “Except his hair.”

Nichols was not the only Illini with his best game of the young season on Sunday. Junior forward Michael Finke scored a season-high 13 points (3-of-4 from three-point range) and collected four rebounds. Freshman guard Mark Smith added 13 points and freshman guard Trent Frazier broke the double-digit scoring mark for the first time in his four-game career (10 points).

Marshall jumped out to a quick 14-11 lead behind a hot start from behind-the-arc, but Illinois shot back with a 15-1 run and led by at least 10 points nearly the rest of the night.

The Illini led 46-36 at the break.

An issue in the season’s first three games, Illinois had only six turnovers against Marshall.

Underwood was very proud of how his team took care of the ball.

“That’s big boy basketball in a game where it was full court, a lot of possessions,” Underwood said.

While Illinois’ offense was humming versus Conference USA’s Thundering Herd, the Illini’s defense was even more impressive, forcing 19 turnovers. Illinois capitalized on the miscues and scored 32 points off of turnovers.

Freshman guard Jarrod West’s 23 points (7-of-8 from the field, including 4-of-5 from three) led all scorers and helped Marshall keep up with Illinois early on.

Junior and Virginia Military Institute transfer Jon Elmore struggled versus the Illini, shooting 2-of-11 from the field.

Of note, no Illinois player surpassed 30 minutes of playing time against Marshall. Mark Smith paced Illinois with 30 minutes.

Illinois guards Mark Alstork and Te’Jon Lucas shooting struggles continued. The pair shot a combined 2-of-10 from the floor.

Still, Underwood says he thinks his team showed potential for what can come this season against high-level, Big Ten competition.

“I’m excited for our growth today,” Underwood said.

Illinois (4-0) is off until Wednesday when it welcomes Division III Augustana to State Farm Center. The Vikings were the runner-ups in the Division III tournament last season.