Illinois puts past behind it in big win over Bradley

Forget about Friday.

I know it’s tough. Whether it’s the image of Cliff Alexander’s switcheroo or Quentin Snider’s Eric Gordon impression, just forget it all. It’s in the past.

The situation was unfortunate and will affect the future of Illinois basketball for a long time coming, but the Illini still have a half decent team that’s actually playing now. Just ask Bradley.

Illinois was almost flawless in an 81-55 win over Bradley on Sunday.

You know Illinois had it going when the long ball was falling. Illinois drained 10 3-pointers on Sunday at a 40 percent clip. The team made 13 3-pointers in its first three games combined.

Jon Ekey starred in the 3-point show for the Illini, hitting 5 of his 7 attempts from behind the arc and finishing with a team-high of 19 points. Ekey doesn’t deserve all the credit.  Most of his 3-point attempts were set up by the penetration of his teammates.

Nineteen of Illinois’ 28 baskets were assisted on against Bradley. Jaylon Tate was a magician Sunday. The freshman finished with six assists to only one turnover, with most of his dimes setting up dunks or 3-pointers.

I can’t find a site that tracks alley-oops, but I’m convinced Tate leads the nation in the category. Champaign turned into Lob City as Tate threw a no-look lob to Ekey and followed it up with a an alley-oop to Rayvonte Rice on the break.

Rice had 13 emphatic points. In addition to his enormous dunk off the Tate lob, Rice also finished two other alley-oops in the game. Someone needs to tell this athletic specimen to give up on the long ball and continue attacking the rim.

Rice shot 0-for-6 from behind the arc but converted 6-of-8 attempts inside of it. Bradley head coach Geno Ford, who is familiar with the Drake transfer’s game from his MVC days, even said Rice is better when he plays in the paint. Ford and his Braves left Rice open by design and he fell for it.

Ford also complemented the play of Nnanna Egwu, saying he “changed the whole game”. Egwu, who entered Sunday averaging 3.3 blocks per game, added three more rejections to his tally against Bradley. The lanky 6-foot-11 center has the whole verticality thing down pat as he consistently keeps his arms up instead of reaching in.

Egwu’s presence in the paint helps the rest of the team defensively. The guards are able to play tighter knowing that Egwu can bail them out at the rim.

The entire team was committed to the defensive end, holding the Braves to 35.6 percent shooting for the game. Illinois also almost doubled Bradley in rebounding at a 49-25 advantage. That “toughness and togetherness” motto that John Groce loves is finally fitting his team’s identity. Groce said that he wants his team “to be fearless”. The Illini were just that on Sunday.

The early product is encouraging. This team may not have the shooting chops of a season ago, but they have athleticism and defense aplenty. Groce is starting to learn which rotations work and the players are getting adjusted to their teammates’ tendencies. The team’s chemistry is building.

The events that took place on Friday were a shock to the Illini fan base. The day won’t be forgotten anytime soon, but let Sunday be a reminder that there’s still some good basketball to be played this season.

John Groce said at Saturday’s signing day news conference that Illinois is in a “great place, not a good place”.

He may be right.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb