TCR Contributor CJ Jackson is a former member of the Illinois Basketball team, playing for the Illini from 2005-09.
A win is ALWAYS a win. This is something that I will say consistently throughout this season. We all want our Illini to go out and dominate every unranked opponent and continue to rise in the rankings. A 30-point blowout win at home would surely help that initiative. However, this just isn’t how the basketball works. Especially at the college level where all of the players are between the ages of 18-23, physically matched, well-coached, and have the same goal in mind.
The 30-point win over Easter Illinois in the season opener is what we all expected. Domination and an easy first win. However, there were a few moments that you can look and get excited about the Illini’s 64-53 win over Oakland on Friday night.
Our Defense dictates how well we play on offense.
Usually, this is the other way around. In the current state of basketball where high flying dunks and deep threes via the likes of Steph Curry get the crowds off their feet and pouring energy into the players, it’s very easy to get hyped up to play better defense.
Rare do you find the same enthusiasm when great defense is being played.
Watching the game, I saw the players getting amped up for a good defensive stand. Not only on the court, but on the sidelines as well. The bench was on their feet and the coaches were visually displaying their approval of good defensive stands. This is a GREAT thing.
Why? Because shots can simply not go in. That great pass could lead to a blown layup. A player can make a great move and his defender fouls him just hard enough to make him miss but not hard enough for the ref to make the call. If that’s what a team is hoping to give them the gusto to play better defense, then it’s hard to rely on that.
At the college level, the teams that really lock in defensively and let the offense feed off that defensive intensity are always in the game towards the end. You always want a shot at the end of the game.
We won, but we can play so much better.
We were neck and neck for 33 minutes of the game. Why? Because we were 0-of-6 from 3 in the first half and we only made half of our free throws (ended the game 8-of-16).
We also never felt the opportunity to really separate ourselves from Oakland during that first 33 minutes. Oakland is not a bad team. They’ll do well in their conference, but player for player they won’t match up to the top Big Ten teams.
Missing threes are one thing but focusing at the line is something that we’ll have to button up on. That’s good because that’s just more time before and after practice locking in and knocking down freebies. I highly doubt we’ll remain a 50% free throw shooting team.
When we found our moment, we took it.
Right around the 7-minute mark of second half, the score was 48-48 after Jack Gohlke hit a challenging step-back three to tie the game up. Just under a minute left, the score was 64-48 in our favor. We saw the moment ended the game within that 6 minute stretch. Even though the score ran up +16, it was our defense that really ended all hopes for Oakland to win this game. Good teams find that small hairline moment and blow the doors off the whole thing. It’s a killer instinct that I love to see. It’s like prime Mike Tyson when he first sees his opponent stumble a bit. It’s game over from there.
All in all we can continue to see glimpses of how this Illinois team can really make some noise this year. The puzzle pieces are there. We had four guys score double digits with two more guys just one basket away from joining that double-digit club.
That shows depth, which is something we’ve all heard was a strength of this year’s team.
We got to see it against Oakland. I’m excited to see how that depth and defensive intensity will fair against No. 4 Marquette on Tuesday.
A Win is a win. Let’s go get another one.