Illinois moved to 6-0 on Friday night with an up-and-down victory over the North Carolina Central Eagles. Although they were down by one at the half, whatever Brad Underwood said in the locker room sparked the Illini as they outscored the Eagles by 14 in the second half for the 86-73 win.
Let’s take a look at some grades for the Illini:
Michael Finke: A+
Finke had one of his best games as an Illini. He had 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting, which included 5-of-11 from beyond the arc. He also added six boards and a few slam dunks to get some energy in the State Farm Center. Finke has shown at times in the past that he has the ability to jump to the next level. He had a 20 and 10 game against Augustana on Wednesday, and we are seeing just what he might do consistently for the Illini in the future. He has such a great combination of size, ability to run the floor and jump shot that I wouldn’t be surprised if we see plenty of double-doubles from him this year. Brad Underwood called him an “elite shooter” earlier this week, and he is certainly proving his coach right.
Te’Jon Lucas: A
Te’Jon has had a mixed bag of a season thus far, and perhaps his best game of the year so far was against N.C. Central. He had eight points on 2-of-4 shooting and was a perfect 4-of-4 from the charity stripe. Lucas had a smooth transition lay-in that made me giddy just watching.
Te'Jon Lucas in transition pic.twitter.com/51eEueyPRO— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 25, 2017
The most impressive part: 6 assists, one turnover. That kind of production is what Underwood needs from what he called one of his “veterans” before the season began. If Lucas can continue to build on that, it will make the team flow so much better on offense. He just needs to stay out of foul trouble.
Kipper Nichols and Aaron Jordan off the bench: A
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched the game on Friday. Aaron Jordan had another outstanding game, and he will undoubtedly be earning praise from the coaching staff and see an increase in his minutes if he continues to play the way that he did. In fact, Brad Underwood compared Jordan to Jeffrey Carroll, one of his former players at Oklahoma State who is already off to a great start this year. What has been so impressive about Jordan is how efficient he has been so far this year. Against NC Central, he had 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting and was 4-of-5 from three. It’s an awesome story line so far for a guy who barely got any playing time his first two years at Illinois and has been grinding it out.
Kipper too has been consistent so far this year and he and Jordan might be competing with the struggling Mark Alstork for a starting job as the season moves forward. Kipper added 14 points and four boards to keep the Illini moving. He also had a monstrous block and provided some energy on the defensive side of the ball. Exhibit A:
Slo-mo of Kipper's block is #Illini pic.twitter.com/QgQp6ywDXF— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) November 25, 2017
Mark Smith: D
Things finally came down to earth for the 2017 Illinois Mr. Basketball recipient. After impressing Illini fans through the first five games of the season, Smith was just 1-of-6 from the field for three points. He added a rebound and an assist but had two turnovers on the night. I saw quite a few people were tweeting about him, as he had little impact on the game as compared to previous ones. Underwood will need him to bounce back as the Illini move into Big Ten play.
Mark Smith HAS to be better on the glass. Too strong. Too good of an athlete.— Derek Piper (@DPiper247) November 25, 2017
This was an improvement on the game against DePaul, where Illinois had 18 on the night. Against the Eagles, Illinois had 10. Underwood wants his guys to be better, and I think this team is definitely capable of averaging less than double-digit turnovers per game. The ratio you like to see is that NC Central had twice as many turnovers as the Illini.
There were a lot of positives to take away from the game, and since we have rated uniforms in the past I felt it was appropriate to do the same here. Some people were grumbling around pregame time that the gray uniforms Illinois was sporting aren’t great. I don’t totally disagree, but let’s not forget they were Malcolm Hill’s favorite. Also, I blame Nike partially for not making the basketball unis better in the first place. We probably won’t see Illinois using the grays that often, anyway.