The Illini finally won one. And boy did they need it.
After opening Big Ten play with two losses, the Illini returned to non-conference play for four more games, starting with UNLV on Saturday. The NCAA Tournament isn’t happening this year, but it doesn’t mean it’s not important to win three, or all four, of these games.
Illinois fans are legitimately more interested in Volleyball than they are Men’s Basketball right now. And they should be. The Illini are headed to the Final Four in volleyball, while the hoops team is now 3-7 and drawing 5,000 fans for the United Center game. But that can’t continue. Wisconsin was the opponent for the Elite 8 Volleyball match today, but I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of Badger fans were must more interested in their 8-1 basketball team taking on their in-state rival today.
Fans have been fighting against feeling apathetic toward the basketball program for the past five seasons, and it’s time for Underwood to show us why we shouldn’t let the apathy sweep over us. And the only way to do that is wins. 3-7 isn’t great, but it’s much better than 2-8. And 6-7 would make us feel at least halfway decent heading into the rest of Big Ten play.
The way the Illini finished the game was frightening — and doesn’t instill much hope for being able to collect wins later in the season — but a win is a win, and if Illinois had blown that game there would be very few people left with any measurable interest in the 2018-19 season.
This was Samba Kane’s coming out party. Here’s the breakout in Kane’s stats.
Illinois’ First 9 Games: 15 minutes, 6 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block
Saturday vs. UNLV: 16 minutes, 8 points, 1 rebound, 2 blocks
Kane came in for Giorgi Bezhanishvilli due to foul trouble and passed up graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa in the rotation due to UNLV’s long, athletic bigs. While Kane needs to work on his positioning and strength to become a better rebounder, he gives the Illini a different dynamic on both ends of the floor.
At this point I think it’s worth giving Kane the majority of ADLR’s minutes. He needs as much experience as possible, even if it means he’s going to make a ton of mistakes.
Now, enjoy some Samba Kane finger wagging.
And this absolutely frightening move.
Feliz led the Illini in scoring and posted a career high 19 points on Saturday. Most importantly, Feliz got back to what he does best, which is driving the lane and using his strength to absorb contact and finish amongst the trees. After starting a few games, Feliz is coming off the bench again and providing a much needed spark.
Over the last few weeks we have seen what can happen when Ayo and Tent are both off of their games offensively. Illinois is going to have to count on Feliz to step up and be able to make a bucket when its two star guards are struggling.
Nichols’ season was off to a rocky start after struggling in Maui. However, he has strung together three really strong games. In his last three against above-average competition, Nichols has shot 15-27 for 40 points and averaging over 25 minutes a game while avoiding foul trouble.
He also played outstanding defense in Chicago against Kaleb Wesson for a long stretch in the second half when G-Bez got into foul trouble. Nichols has to be consistent in order for Illinois to have a chance to win. It seems he has righted the ship... for now.
This is the number of offensive rebounds that the Runnin’ Rebels hauled in on Saturday. The Illini secured 25 defensive rebounds so the Rebels were able to secure about half of their missed shots. Luckily, UNLV was held to 33% shooting on offense. In total, the Illini were outrebounded by 6, but it was clear that UNLV’s length and athleticism down low really bothered the undersized Illini.
The Illini turned it over 19 times, which was two more than UNLV’s 17 turnovers. This discrepancy, combined with the issues on the glass, allowed UNLV to get 10 more shots and 8 more FTA than Illinois. The purpose of the pressure and style is to force the opposition to turn it over more than you do. Illinois played solid defense and benefited from some extremely poor shooting from UNLV, but if the Illini want to be successful, they can’t be turning it over this many times.
16 fast-break points
This was a solid improvement after putting up only three fast-break points in the Nebraska game. Illinois is at its best when it gets out and runs, and the Illini had their best night in transition since the Georgetown game in the second game of the season.
Non-coincidentally, it was also one of Ayo’s better performances. He showed off multiple smooth finishes in transition. However, that number could have been much higher if Illinois had not blown multiple 3-on-1 breaks. Those are mistakes that have to be cleaned up.
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