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Illinois is 6-0, Let the (Real) Games Begin

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Aaron Jordan, Freshmen Defense, and a Peek Ahead

NCAA Basketball: Southern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois is 6-0. Being undefeated is awesome, even if it has come against cupcakes (and DePaul). In the preseason, most fans and media would have told you that Illinois would start 6-0. They didn’t play in a holiday tournament, their Gavitt Games opponent was picked to finish last in the Big East, and all of their games were played at the State Farm Center. The light schedule has been perfect for a young team with a new head coach. They’ve had a few weeks to build chemistry, make mistakes and experience success. What has also been nice, is that there hasn’t been any game in doubt. There were those last three minutes against UT-Martin that were slightly uncomfortable, but besides that, it has been smooth sailing. This doesn’t mean that this team doesn’t have issues. It just means we’ve been able to focus on the short-term surprises, the long-term concerns, and what Underwood wants this team to look like.

Every “surprise” has been overshadowed by Aaron Jordan. After last season, most expected Jordan to be the 9th man on this team, perhaps he would fill in if the Illini ran into foul trouble. Instead, he has been the Illini’s most consistent player. I’m not going to throw a bunch of advanced stats out there, but Jordan has been incredibly efficient. He ranks 7th on the team in minutes at 17 per game. In those 17 minutes he is averaging 11.8 points per game (4th on the team), 4.3 rebounds per game (4th on the team), and 1.2 steals per game (2nd on the team). He also leads the team in three point percentage at 65% on 23 attempts (second most on the team). Those are some gaudy per-minute numbers. In short, when he’s on the floor, Jordan is active and playing his role which makes it hard to keep him on the bench.

It’s a striking contrast to last year when Jordan couldn’t get on the floor. We have already heard many tales about all the hard work Jordan has put in, which is undoubtedly a huge reason for this early leap in production. However, Underwood clearly has confidence in the junior wing, and that has given Jordan added confidence. I should preface this next part by noting I haven’t spoken to Jordan, this is purely me peering into my Illini Crystal Ball. Under Groce, it seemed clear that Jordan’s role was to make threes. If he was missing, Groce would give him the quick hook. In Underwood’s offense Jordan knows exactly when he should and shouldn’t be shooting, and “make or miss” isn’t weighing on his mind. He didn’t change his shooting form, he has always been a hard worker, but you can tell just by watching that he’s no longer pressing. Additionally, Jordan always played with great energy and activity on defense. Last year, besides Te’Jon Lucas, I would say Aaron was the most active, pressuring on-ball defender. He still made his fair share of mistakes, but it’s not terribly surprising he’s adapted to Underwood’s defensive philosophy.

The freshmen trio of guards have also been playing inspired defense. If you look around the country, you won’t find impressive freshmen man-to-man defense in too many places. Some early examples include Duke playing strictly zone, and Kentucky’s inability to guard the three point line. To be fair, Illinois hasn’t had to face the same competition as those teams, but the freshmen, Frazier and Williams especially, seem to have an early understanding of the importance of giving maximum effort on defense.

A big test going forward is whether the freshmen will continue to give consistent effort on defense. Another test will be whether the team continues to trust the offensive system, even when they run into droughts against high-major opponents. This team does not have the necessary mixture of talent and experience to walk into the gym and smack other teams around. They are going to need to trust their system and play with effort on defense. They haven’t truly been tested yet, and they haven’t played on the road yet, so we haven’t seen how this team is going react to adversity.

We should have some more answers in the next two weeks. Here is the Illini’s next five games:

@ Wake Forest (2-4)

@ Northwestern (4-2)

vs. Maryland (5-1)

vs. Austin Peay (2-3)

@ UNLV (6-0)

In the preseason, I had the Illini going 2-3 in this stretch, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised at anything from 1-4 to 4-1 at this point. We simply just don’t know a lot about this team. We will learn a lot right away on Tuesday at Wake Forest and Friday at Northwestern. Can Mark Smith continue to carry the scoring load at the guard position? Is this Aaron Jordan for real? Are Finke, Black and Nichols enough to hold down the post? Are the Illini going to trust the spread offense when times get tough?

All I know is that I’m excited to find out. ACC-B1G Challenge and the start of Big Ten conference play in the same week is like if Halloween and Christmas were in the same week. It’s scary and probably not the best idea, but it’s going to be fun while it’s happening. It’s time for high leverage Illinois basketball and our first real peek at what the future could look like.