I was critical of Black in the Ohio State TGTBTU for not being able to stay on the floor and for letting the fouls pile up. While Black did foul out Wednesday, he played 33 minutes, which is the most he’s played in the 2018 calendar year. Black put up 20 points and seven rebounds on 8-of-12 from the field.
His incredible offensive efficiency continued, and he single handedly kept the Illini afloat late in the first half. Black’s two best games this season have come against the undersized Hoosiers who max out their front line at 6-foot-7.
Getting to the Line
The Illini and the Hoosiers had identical nights from the line as Illinois shot 20-30 and IU shot 20-29. There have not been many games this year where the foul-prone Illini have had more FTA attempts than heir opponent, Underwood has to like that. However, he is probably not pleased with that percentage. Frazier and Nichols both shot under 70% from the line on at least five attempts each, including a few missed front ends.
Mark Smith and The Off-Guards
I’m assuming that would be a pretty bad band as well. It’s been no secret that Illinois has struggled at the wing position all season. Last night was merely another example.
Without Da’Monte Williams, the wing minutes were split between Smith, Alstork and Jordan. The trio went 1-of-10 from the field (1-of-7 from three) for seven points, all of which belonged to Aaron Jordan. They also tallied three assists and five rebounds in a combined 66 minutes of action.
None of the four wing players for Illinois have been reliable shooters from anywhere on the floor. The foursome of Smith, Williams, Alstork and Jordan are shooting a combined 24.7 percent from beyond the arc on over eight attempts per game. While Illinois clearly is need of athletic bigs to rebound and protect the rim, the season would not be going this poorly if at least one or two of the Illini wings had stepped up and become a consistent, reliable offensive option.
Mark Smith probably had far too lofty of expectations coming into this season. He is a baseball prospect turned basketball prospect with impressive physical tools that he doesn’t quite know how to use on the hardwood yet. He is going to improve. He is going to learn a lot this offseason about positioning and strategy. He will also be getting a lot of shots up.
I’m still very high on Mark Smith and very excited for a starting backcourt of Frazier/Ayo/Smith for the next few seasons. However, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had one of the most disappointing freshman seasons by an Illinois Mr. Basketball.
Right now, Smith is averaging six points per game and less than two rebounds and two assists per contest. The last Illinois Mr. Basketball to average 6 PPG or fewer was Illinois forward Jarrod Gee who averaged 6 PPG in 1994. Now scoring isn’t everything, but if you go down the list of Illinois Mr. Basketball, you will find a lot of impressive names who made immediate impacts on their program in year one.
The Illini shot 9 for 18 at the rim, and that was thanks to five blocks courtesy of Juwan Morgan. Morgan’s athleticism was a cut above any other player on the floor and it was apparent all night long. It’s not an easy thing to practice, but the Illini need to become better at attacking shot blockers, drawing fouls, pump faking and just being strong around the rim. Missed layups, especially in transition, are not just another empty possession, they can be completely deflating for a team. There have been too many fast break opportunities that have turned into four or five point swings in favor of the opposition due to the Illini’s inability to finish at the rim. Those start to add up pretty quickly if they occur multiple times in a game.
The Remaining Schedule
As we look ahead, the Illini play Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan State in their next three games. All three teams currently reside in the top four of the Big Ten Standings. Three more losses would set the stage for a showdown with Rutgers that could decide who finishes in the basement of the Big Ten. It’s always darkest before the dawn.