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Welcome to March, Illini

Key takeaways from Illinois’ thriller against Michigan.

Evan McClintock // TCR

The shorthanded Illini pulled out a thrilling 91-87 victory Thursday night in double overtime against rival Michigan.

This marks the sixth straight victory against the Wolverines, and Brad Underwood and the Illini have yet to lose to Juwan Howard in his tenure. The win was a much-needed result as well, and we should now feel comfortable about Selection Sunday and no longer worry about being on the bubble.

Let’s take a look at a few takeaways from this game.

RJ Melendez is Back

With Jayden Epps missing this game, RJ got some extra playing time and he made full use of it. Melendez scored all 12 of his points in the second half and overtime and kickstarted a big Illinois run with this emphatic dunk.

He also played some excellent defense on the perimeter and kept the Michigan wings in check for most of the game.

On the offensive end he looked the most engaged he’s been all season, cutting off the ball instead of just sitting on the three-point line and passing the ball around. One of the few times he did sit on the three-point line though, he hit this huge shot.

This is the RJ all of the Illini fans were excited about coming into the season, he’s shown up just in time.

Figured out an Offensive Formula?

The numbers speak for themselves: Illinois got to the line for 34 free throw attempts, the most it’s had all season. On the other hand Illinois only shot 18 threes, the second-fewest attempts from 3 this season.

Illinois played this game with a different mindset, attacking the rim and forcing contact and putting the opposing team in foul trouble. It also meant they didn’t go extended stretches hoisting up tough jump shots, which have usually resulted in scoring droughts.

With no true point guard and no consistent threat from deep, it feels like Illinois’ best option in the half court is to run some pick and roll action and attack the rim. If the Illini continue to do that, it can result in one of three things, all of which are good:

1. High quality shots from close range

2. Get opponents in foul trouble

3. Collapse defense to create some space for perimeter shooters (hopefully finding them the rhythm they’ve been lacking all season)

Interior Defense may be an Issue

Coleman Hawkins played his heart out, but sometimes he just couldn’t make up for the size mismatch against Hunter Dickinson. Once Dickinson got going down the stretch the Illini were forced to bring some help defense and double, which left an open man on the perimeter. This help defense is what allowed Jett Howard to hit those big threes down the stretch and also created some other quality looks for Michigan that luckily didn’t fall.

What we saw down the stretch in terms of interior defense doesn’t bode well for the next matchup when the Illini take on Zach Edey and the Boilermakers. The coaching staff is going to have to go back to the drawing board to see how we can cover up this deficiency.

All in all, this was a much needed win for the Illini. It keeps them in the hunt for the Big Ten Tournament double-bye and also took them over the 20 win threshold for the fourth straight season.

Hopefully this win kickstarts a March to remember for the Illini.