I took some time to review the season for the 2018-19 Men’s Basketball team. It wasn’t always pretty, and when the team is 12-21 and you have to pick the best five games, you have limited options.
It may have been easier to select the five worst games of the year — a list that I am already imagining but one I do not want to reflect on.
Despite the poor season record, I think there are some solid takeaways from some of the wins that the Illini were able to pull out this year. All five I selected for the top games of the year were conference victories.
#5: Illinois 99, Rutgers 94 (OT)
I know what you’re thinking: Rutgers? Really? Yes, really.
The reason I put Rutgers at number five is simple: the top four were a lot easier to pick. The fifth-best win was a bit more of a grey area. But more importantly, I believe this is a game the team would’ve lost during the 2017-18 campaign.
Giorgi B. set the all-time record for scoring by a freshman with 35 points, passing Deon Thomas’ record of 34 points. The most impressive part of this was that he went 14-of-18 from the field, and hit 7-of-8 free throws. Trent Frazier had a solid game too, with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field. Illinois held the lead for a good portion of the game, but Rutgers was able to battle back late in the second half.
Last year, I think it would’ve been a game they drop. This year, Giorgi made the difference. And the Illini were able to make buckets when it counted.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili pic.twitter.com/F2hnPQvwe3— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) February 9, 2019
#4: Illinois 63, Ohio State 56 (In Columbus)
This was a game toward the end of Illinois’ impressive streak to begin February. They had already beaten Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan State, and Ohio State was the icing on the cake.
Going into the opponent’s home court and holding them under 60 points is impressive, especially a team with Kaleb Wesson outmatching our big men. Like many games this season, Trent, Ayo and Giorgi combined for over 40 points.
Defensively, the Illini were able to hold Wesson to just 11 points and the Buckeyes to 36.2% percent shooting from the field (and 15.4 percent from beyond the arc).
If Brad’s system can continue to improve with switching and stopping buckets around the rim, like we saw in this game, there could be potential for some real progress next season. The only major statistical issue the Illini had in this game was going 9-of-17 from the free throw line.
But, a road win is a road win!
#3: Illinois 95, Minnesota 68
The Minnesota game was the breakout game of the year for the Illini, and it was a drubbing. The Illini led by 23 at halftime and didn’t give Minnesota a real chance of coming back into the game in the second half.
Daniel Oturu, the stud freshman, had a great game with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Giorgi and the rest of the defense held Jordan Murphy to 11 points, and he had just three boards on the night. Amir Coffey was just 2-of-13 from the field, which is pretty bad by any standard.
Offensively, just like in many of these other successful games for the Illini, Ayo had 23, Giorgi had 20, and Frazier had 15. This trio was the most important part of the team’s success. Going 8-of-16 from beyond the arc was another good sign for the Illini, who improved their overall shooting percentage from deep on the season.
All in all, seeing Richie Pitino totally flabbergasted and unable to do anything to stop the onslaught was really enjoyable.
#2: Illinois 78, Maryland 67 (At MSG)
This was the first great surprise of the year to me, personally. I figured even though it was a neutral site at Madison Square Garden, Maryland would still have the upper hand in not just fan support but also raw talent. Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando are both very large men.
But right away, Alan Griffin had a nice steal and layup in transition. I knew that was a good sign, but I did not think it would lead to a double-digit win.
The Maryland game, of course, was the Tevian Jones game. Ayo had a team-high 20 points, but Jones’ 18 helped the Illini stay on top in the second half. His athleticism and ability to catch and shoot is an asset for Underwood’s offense, and it’s a shame Jones didn’t get more playing time this season.
Only six Terrapins scored on the day, with Fernando getting his with 19 points. But Maryland was only about to shoot 6-of-19 from beyond the arc, just over 30 percent.
Illinois actually shot worse from the field for the game, but was +14 on points off turnovers. That’s your game right there.
#1: Illinois 79, Michigan State 74
The Michigan State win was the most high-profile — and the most impressive — because the Illini were able to hold on.
It was not a dominant victory like Minnesota or Maryland. Michigan State still shot over 50 percent from the field, which is a recurring problem for Underwood’s Illinois teams.
Illinois was, however, able to turn over the Spartans 24 times and were +22 in points off turnovers. That’s the formula for success for an Underwood team. If the Illini were able to cut down on the back-cuts and easy layups, it may well have been a more significant margin of victory.
As you rightly remember, this was Ayo’s breakout game, where he hit two three-pointers late that helped seal the victory. The sweetest part? Right as Dan Dakich was saying, “This won’t end well for Illinois,” Ayo hit the first of the two late shots. He was 4-of-8 from deep for the game and ended with 24 points. Giorgi and Trent chipped in 16 and 15 points, respectively.
And then we stormed.
Storm, Illini, storm.
And hopefully next year there are more moments like this one.
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