Coppin State victory showed Illinois basketball’s potential

By Masaki Sugimoto

Illinois fans were excited for basketball season to begin last weekend, with the Illini donning new uniforms and leaving a 50-49 NIT loss to Clemson behind them.

The result was an unimpressive 80-71 win over Georgia Southern that got people questioning this year’s Illini. Then on Sunday, Illinois put a 114-56 beatdown on Coppin State, a game that should erase all doubt.

The crushing of Coppin State shows the Illini are a mentally strong team capable of responding to public criticism.

Doubts arose after the Illini failed to dominate Georgia Southern, but Illinois responded as well as it could have.

The Illini’s performance was as strong as any in the John Groce era, with their 114 points the most ever under Groce, and the most for an Illinois team since 1993.

Some players added significant contributions after having minimal roles in the first game. Kendrick Nunn scored 13 points after going scoreless in the first contest, and senior Ahmad Starks burst onto the scene, dropping 18 points and five assists after putting up just 10 points on 2-of-11 in his Illini debut Friday.

Illinois was able to shoot 55.4 percent from the field and 53.6 percent from behind the arc, making 15 3-pointers, just one shy of the school record.

This strong shooting performance came after the Illini shot just 41.1 percent on field goals and 36.8 percent on 3-point tries against Georgia Southern.

The big improvements didn’t stop there. Jaylon Tate dished out seven assists after only having one in the first game. Rayvonte Rice, despite scoring fewer points, committed no turnovers and had four steals against the Eagles.

This game showed Groce knows how to properly motivate and direct this Illini team in his third year, learning from some of the rough patches he experienced in his first two seasons as head coach at Illinois. With 11 players returning from last year’s team, Groce knows this team. These guys have been with him long enough for this team to start reaping the rewards of his coaching ability.

The Illini faced challenges before even taking the court, with Tracy Abrams’ ACL injury forcing him to sit out the entirety of the 2014-15 season. Yet, Groce has helped Starks fit right into the starting point guard role, and with two other seniors in the starting lineup, Starks will have help leading the team.

The toughness and responsiveness of this team will prove invaluable down the stretch. When the inevitable rough patch in the season rears its ugly head, the Illini won’t go on an eight-game losing streak like last season. This Illini team can play with anyone in the Big Ten, and maybe, in March, anyone in the country.

Masaki is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at and on Twitter @MasakiSugimoto.