After hitting a rough patch in non-conference play, the Illini have found their stride. The winners of five straight and in sole owners of second place in the Big Ten at 6-2, the Fighting Illini have also snapped two horrendous road droughts by winning in Madison and West Lafayette. With a win on Saturday at Michigan, Illinois should make another leap in the AP and coaches’ poll.
Still gotta find the three-ball
Despite some inconsistencies shooting the ball from deep this year, it still has yet to hinder Illinois’ ability to score. Teams have packed it in the lane and tried to run Frazier off the arc which allows more help defense on Cockburn and Giorgi. A lot of times this leads to bad decisions, forced shots, and turnovers. Granted Trent will not go 5/7 from three every game but if he shoots around his normal 40% clip, Giorgi can knock down a couple threes or mid-range jumpers, and Ayo hits the occasional three it completely changes how the Illini are able to play offensively. The defense is forced to honor multiple three-point threats and gives Kofi more room to work around the rim.
After getting torched by Miami earlier in the season for 81 points, this team looked confused defensively. Since then, Illinois has held all but three conference foes under 70 points.. Maybe Rutgers has an argument, but right now I believe the Illini are the best defensive team in the Big Ten. Kofi is an imposing force in the paint, Trent is harassing guards, Giorgi’s post defense has improved, and all around this team is locked in on the defensively. Kofi altered a ton of shots Purdue threw up in the lane, and to much pleasure of the Illini fanbase, Matt Haarms didn’t even look like he belonged on the same floor as Kofi. Defense and energy travels in the Big Ten, and it’s shown when the Illini go on the road this year. Illinois is 2-2 on the road in conference play while the rest of the Big 10 is 7-42.
Do Your Job
Most importantly, it seems that everyone has settled in and found their role. Illinois put on a clinic in the second half, and it’s because everything was clicking. The role players (Griffin, Nichols, Feliz and Williams) are all doing what needs to be done to win. The occasional slashing drives from these guys give the Illini a little extra scoring punch they need. Their hustle has also been very evident. Now, Kofi knows he can dominate on the interior and the boards every game. The loss at Michigan State was a wake-up call for Cockburn. With 22 points and 15 rebounds on Tuesday, it’s pretty evident that he’ll be someone opposing Big Ten coaches will dread game-planning for. Frazier has become more aggressive as of late and the newest member to the 1000-point club erupted with five treys and 21 points on only seven shot attempts. (!!) Giorgi looks more comfortable playing alongside Kofi and has been a very solid contributor the last couple of games. Last but certainly not least, Ayo is a gamer. He’s been so clutch in crunch time. I’m starting to lose count of how many games in a row he’s made a pull up jumper, step back jumper, drive, or made free throws in the last few minutes of the game to help push the Illini forward. He is playing like a first-round pick, and if he continues this, the Illini will be a scary sight come March.
Illini fans, start getting ready for the dance.