Yes, they escaped.
Yes, the victory is the same even if it’s over a team that looked like it was shooting blindfolded for significant chunks of the first half.
And yes, the Illini demonstrated their ability to punch back when a tough-minded team with three high-end guards threw second-half haymakers.
But what did we learn from Illinois’ nailbiter of a victory over the Spartans?
Possibly everything and nothing all at once.
We learned that the Illini could struggle in March against teams with elite backcourt play.
While Coleman Hawkins can be an excellent rim protector at times, Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard could get to the rim at will. And sure, Justin Harmon and Ty Rodgers are absolute dogs defensively. But quicker guards who can attack off the bounce with pace and control can give them fits.
Dain Dainja’s apparent regression is a problem for this roster moving forward. That’s the guy who should be the deterrent.
Quincy Guerrier, your table is set. Your defense could be the deciding factor in those close games where Hawkins needs someone else in the post to stop the basketball. You’ve got to put the “D” back into “3 and D.”
We learned that Coleman Hawkins has every necessary tool to carry this team.
(But that doesn’t mean that he will.)
The Coleman Hawkins experience is a roller coaster. It’s a bizarre train ride conducted by a Cali kid with a stunningly high basketball IQ. His versatility at 6-foot-9 is tantalizing. Sometimes, Hawkins makes plays that few players in college hoops can make.
But those moments of mastery are often undercut by moments of head-scratching decision-making.
Dammit, Coleman, you can drill that shot every time. Pull the trigger.
Dammit, Coleman, stop taking triple pump fadeaway hook shots from 25 feet while being double-teamed.
Dammit, Coleman, that guy was wide open. Just fire a pass into the post, no need to throw a no-look off-the-backboard blindfolded lob.
But man, when he is dialed in he’s one of the best players in the conference. If he can continue to stay out of foul trouble, the menacing presence on both ends that he brings can be a catalyst for an Illini tournament run.
We learned that the rotation is uncomfortably tight.
Against Michigan State, the Illini played a six-man (plus Dain in spots) rotation.
Will that be enough to get it done down the stretch?
A healthy Amani Hansberry’s rebounding and hustle in spurts could turn a few bad possessions into good ones.
Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn has a tantalizing two-way skill set.
As conference play heats up, it looks like the rotation for the Illini has changed in light of recent events. And not in the direction I would have expected.
We learned that Marcus Domask is still a real dude.
Domask can recover from in-game struggles as well as any player I’ve seen in a while. He has so much confidence in his ability to overcome, and rightfully so.
He’s ready to be a top-three player on a team that makes a tournament run. He’s the blueprint for future grad transfers.
I took some flak for suggesting before the season that Domask, not Goode, would start for the Illini. Against MSU, Illinois was able to start both. Stretching the floor and winning with toughness and IQ is more sustainable than the hero ball model.
Domask has been a key cog in making these possibilities real.
We learned that Ty Rodgers is an elite scorer.
Okay, maybe not. But it sure was nice watching him make plays with the ball in his hands after the Purdue game.
The native Michigander is truly a force. Defensively, he may have struggled a bit keeping quicker guards in front of him. But his length disrupted passing lanes and his frenetic harassment wreaked havoc.
You know, the usual.
He demonstrated resilience as did Domask. But he wasn’t recovering from a bad half. He bounced back from a poor game in which he was rendered unplayable late due to the presence of a certain big man.
If Ty can produce these kinds of offensive games, he has true all-conference and NBA potential.
In the end…
This is a stretch of schedule with several winnable games for the Illini. And while Michigan State will undoubtedly round into form and become a conference contender again, the Illini can cement their status as a potential big dog on the Big Ten porch.
Beating the team you’re built to model is a good sign of progress. And that’s exactly what happened when the Illini felled Sparty.