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Illinois vs. New Mexico State Report Card

What we liked and didn’t like from this year’s trip to the United Center.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Orange Jacket: A+

Underwood broke out the Orange Jacket to honor Lou Henson and it was marvelous. Many wondered if Underwood continue the tradition of his predecessors, and tonight he put those wonders to bed.

Te’Jon Lucas: A

Lucas had 14 points on 6-7 from the field. He also had 5 rebounds 3 assists and a steal while only committing one turnover and two personal fouls. Lucas was the driving force during Illinois’ comeback early in the second half. After being down 12 at the half, Lucas took control of the game and quickly erased the deficit. His aggressiveness on the offensive end and success in the two man game led to easy baskets for him and his teammates.

Lucas was able to stay out foul trouble and play 26 minutes tonight, and that allowed him to put together a very complete performance. Freshman point guard Trent Frazier also had a very good night, pouring in 13 points, including some clutch three pointers. Underwood closed the game with a lineup that had Lucas and Frazier on the court together. That could serve as an interesting, pressuring lineup as the season goes on.

Halftime Adjustments: A

The main difference between last year’s team, and this year’s team, is that after going down by twenty, they continue to fight and battle back, only to break our hearts in the end. Whereas last year’s team would go down by twenty, only to #fakerally to a 12 point deficit, before losing by twenty.

Underwood has the reputation of a great basketball strategist and in-game coach, and so far it has shown. He’s making adjustments at halftime, and not just adjustments to his neckwear.

Not only is he making the right adjustments, but he’s making them clear to the team and they are responding and executing.

Leron Black: B+

Black played sparingly in the first half after picking up two quick fouls, but that didn’t stop the junior from being Illinois’ leading scorer in his first game off the bench this season. Black had 17 points and 8 boards in 23 minutes on 6-11 from the field. All of his points came in the second half and he was instrumental in the Illini comeback. Black has incredible feel and touch in his post up game from eight feet out. In a perfect world, these may not be the shots Underwood desires out of the halfcourt set, but Black is proving that he can make the tough shots, and that he is one of the Illini’s most consistent scoring options.

The Marks: D

It’s been a rough go for Smith and Alstork the past few weeks, but for completely different reasons.

Alstork may have the best grasp of Underwood’s identity on both sides of the court, but the execution just has not been there. Alstork and Jordan have been the best cutters and entry passers for first and second cutter layups in Underwood’s spread offense. Alstork led the Illini with 4 assists last night. He has also been Illinois’ best on ball defender on numerous occasions this season, often taking on the oppositions best player down the stretch. However, Alstork has continued to underwhelm on the offensive end. He’s not getting the number of shots he did at Wright State and hasn’t been able to find his rhythm. He’s forcing the issue when he shouldn’t be and not being aggressive when he has the opportunity to be. It’s a balance that hopefully he will find as Illinois turns for conference play, because they need an experienced scorer on the wing to help them close out games

Smith on the other hand, is dealing with the speed of the game and complexity of Underwood’s system. Unlike Alstork, Smith doesn’t have the p’s and q’s of the spread offense down yet. He is a confident player once he get’s the ball, and his success will come when he knows what shots he should be taking and when he should be taking them. I’d like to see Smith utilized more in the pinch post like he was earlier in the season, let Da’Monte get him the ball at the free throw line and let him go to work.

Closing Games: F

This mostly has to do with youth, silly mistakes, and that “losing complex” Underwood has mentioned. I think it also has a lot to do with the last grade that Alstork and Smith received. Many thought Alstork could be the closer on this year’s team and Smith could be the closer of the future. They both have the size, skill and mentality of a wing player you want to give the ball to late in the game. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way, and they both played very little down the stretch. Without Smith or Alstork, the Illini are turning to smaller players, Lucas and Frazier, to make special plays down the stretch. It’s harder for those players to make plays in the paint when the defense tightens up and the opposition is looking to block their shots.

At the end of the day, the Illini just need to be able to inbound the ball and they are probably 10-3 instead of 8-5. How will this team close games in Big Ten play? That’s the growth every Illini fan will be tracking the next few months.

The United Center: F

Burn it. Burn it to the ground.