Illinois finally got that elusive Big Ten win on Wednesday.
It was a tough, gutty victory, where the Illini struggled to score for stretches and did not play their best. However, they made enough plays when it really mattered and came away with the win.
Here are a few takeaways from the game.
Trent Frazier and Leron Black are the heart and soul of this team
That was pretty obvious from the get-go as Illinois relied heavily on both players for offense when the team struggled to find their rhythm. Black and Frazier are two very different players, and yet at times they are exactly the same.
They both bring tenacity on defense and a swagger shooting the ball. They know they'll get theirs, even when not everything is going well. Frazier, specifically, is slowly turning into the guy for this offense. He is the guy teammates want to get the ball to in crunch time, and he just has that ‘it’ factor.
What more can be said about Leron Black? The guys a killer. He has a bevy of offensive moves, and they were on full display against Indiana. His floaters and short-range game is a refreshing jolt for a team who desperately needs them.
Mark Alstork and Mark Smith are on the opposite end of that spectrum
While Frazier and Black have established themselves as leaders of the team, Smith and Alstork have taken huge steps backwards. That's not to say they can't turn it around with a couple of nice games to end the season. But, right now, they are struggling mightily with their confidence on offense and defense.
Mark Smith started decently against Indiana, but two quick fouls and we never saw him again. Brad Underwood just doesn't seem to have any surety in Smith's game on either side of the court, and there are rumors Smith and his camp are not happy about it.
Alstork, on the other hand, is a fantastic on-the-ball defender and will be sorely missed in that regard next season. However, it's hard to imagine how Alstork averaged almost 20 points a game last season at Wright State. Maybe it was the level of competition. He simply hasn't been effective on that end of the court at Illinois. This is a player who had NBA aspirations. That isn't happening if he can't find his offensive game soon. Complete lack of self-confidence.
Now both Marks are too talented and too hard working to be held down for long, and eventually the game will slow down for both of them. Right now, though, both Smith and Alstork are liabilities to this team.
Kipper Nichols as a third scorer could be huge down the stretch
Nichols is one of the most athletically gifted players on the team, but up until now his inconsistency has been maddening for Illini fans.
So it was rather refreshing to see him follow up a career game against Michigan State with a gritty, determined effort in the victory over Indiana. His shooting, specifically, has been revelatory in the last two contests as he has been hitting at a much better rate from three-point range than in previous games.
If Nichols turns into a competent third scorer (especially now that Aaron Jordan has levelled off in Big Ten play) along with Frazier and Black, this team could finish with a flourish and maybe surprise some people.
It's not all positive, but it's hard to complain much after a victory, even one as sloppy as Wednesdays. Illinois is back at it on Tuesday against Rutgers at the State Farm Center.