I know what you’re thinking.
Yes, Illinois IS back. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
With a road win in Ann Arbor on Saturday — completing the two-game sweep of Michigan — Illinois has claimed sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings with a 7-2 conference record (15-5 overall). Man, it feels good.
With the win, Illinois will likely move into a top-15 spot in the national polls, a spot where most Illini fans feel the team should be every year. That being said, there are plenty of things we can take away from the close victory at Michigan.
Yes, Ayo is as good as advertised.
After an incredible freshman year, we knew Ayo had a lot of potential to build on his game, and he truly has come alive during this recent six-game winning streak. He finished Saturday’s win with a career-high 27 points (11-of-18 FGs), seven rebounds and a pair of assists. On a day where Kofi, Trent and Giorgi all were in foul trouble, he took over when the team needed it most. What a stud.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his game is his confidence. He knows he can hit threes, pull up from mid-range, or drive to the hoop and finish over just about anyone. This team is going to miss him next year, as he’ll be a sure-fire draft pick.
This team still has some things to figure out.
Being in first place in the Big Ten is no laughing matter, and Underwood knows this is not the end game for this team. There were plenty of things that Illinois did in the first half that prevented them from maintaing a sizable lead over Michigan and a number of things in the second half that allowed Michigan to nearly pull off the win.
Defensively, the team had a difficult time containing Zavier Simpson, particularly in the second half. He finished with 17 points of 7-of-12 FGs. Although Teske was just 4-of-14 (five of those misses coming from beyond the arc) from the field overall, Kofi did not keep him away from the paint enough early on in the game. This may have contributed to the slow start for Cockburn as he couldn’t seem to find the bottom of the bucket at all.
Let’s not forget, also, that Michigan was 12-of-21 from the free throw line. No team that shoots that poorly from the line, especially down the stretch where they missd five in a row, should win that game. All in all, though, Illinois took advantage and that should be commended.
Kofi is imperfect.
As I mentioned above, Kofi struggled on both sides of the ball during different stretches of the game. First and foremost, Teske seemed to win the first half between the two. When Kofi was in foul trouble, Giorgi was the next man up to guard Teske, which is not a good matchup at all.
Although Kofi is likely the front-runner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, he is not going to always have 22 & 15 games like he did at Purdue. He’s still great, but we cannot expect him to always play without blemishes. The team needs to do a better job finding other ways to score and rebound when he is struggling.
This team has a lot of grind.
All else equal, this is a game that Illinois probably would’ve given away had it been played in recent years. Aside from Ayo’s star-studded performance, Trent and Andres had big days as well when the big men were not performing.
It seems that Brad really has instituted a new culture in Champaign, and I am excited to see how far this team can go this season.