What a fun game!
It's been years since I've had so much fun watching an Illini basketball game. These two teams are going to make some noise in the next couple of years in the Big Ten. It might not be immediate, but it will happen.
For Illinois, there are a few things that still need work, but boy, is it refreshing to answer them coming off three straight wins.
Where to begin.
How about Giorgi.
That was one of the most impressive games a big man has had at Illinois in quite some time. 35 points, 7 rebounds. Single game freshman record. He displayed some of the best post scoring moves Illini fans have ever seen. The baby hook. Shimmy and shake. Good hands. Soft touch around the rim. He was unbeatable Saturday. I know this joke is being told ad nauseum, but we really need to find a way to keep his brother here. He has been remarkable with his family in attendance.
It seemingly has come out of nowhere. Not even ranked in the top 350 players in the country in high school, this coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. Finding Giorgi was a huge recruiting coup. Tremendous game for a pretty tremendous player.
Everyone else too.
This team has really come together as a unit in recent weeks. Outside of one dud against Iowa (who shot at a ridiculously torrid pace), the Illini have improved by leaps and bounds from the beginning of the season to now. It's been a total team effort.
I've been very harsh with players like Aaron Jordan, Kipper Nichols, and Andres Feliz in past write-ups of this article. I'm happy to say they have made me eat my words the last several games. Jordan brings so much effort and intensity. Feliz is a whirling dervish — for better or worse — and has been a dog on defense. Kipper still hasn't completely got it together on both ends of the court, but he's working hard and his shot is starting to improve from earlier in the season. You can throw ADLR in there too. He provided some tough minutes and even flashed some grace and agility on a few plays.
There's no way Illinois beats these teams without an entire team effort. Since the calendar has turned, they've gotten exactly that.
I made a joke that the Monstars might have stolen Frazier's talent a couple of weeks ago after a tough shooting night. Well, they gave it back.
Frazier has been on fire from deep recently. It has really opened things up on the floor for the other players. Teams have to respect Frazier's shooting ability, and that clears the lane for Giorgi to clean up.
His defense has also been fantastic. Active hands and forcing turnovers have allowed the transition baskets to flow through Frazier and Ayo.
Everyone seems to be having fun again. Credit to the coaching staff. They've done a heck of a job revitalising a team left for dead just two months ago.
If there's one thing to pick at, it was the defensive effort in the half-court set. Give Rutgers credit, they made some circus shots and played with a tempo that put Illinois on its heels all game. The rebounding was a concern in the first half, but the effort in that particular aspect was much better in the second. It was still hard to watch some of the defensive lapses and allowing Rutgers to bully them in the lane. It's much more palatable when you win, though.
Also, it seems as if the Illini focused on defending certain players and forgot about Caleb McConnell. He was an offensive force for Rutgers. So many open looks, though. Illinois has to clean that up if they are to continue their second-half resurgence.
I'm happy to say there was nothing ugly about this game. It was exciting. It was topsy-turvy. It was Illinutgers. It was everything you expected it to be.
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