Illini show improvement, but can’t hang with Iowa State for full 40 mintues

Head coach John Groce speaks with a referee during the game against North Florida at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center on Friday, Nov. 13. Illinois lost 93-81.

By Alex Roux

Moral victories don’t count in the win-loss column.

Illinois lost 84-73 to No. 4 Iowa State on Saturday night in the Emerald Coast Classic Final, dropping its record to 3-4 on the young season.

But I doubt you could find an Illini basketball fan who doesn’t feel better now about John Groce’s squad than it did roughly a week ago. Yeah, Illinois let a golden opportunity for a marquee nonconference win slip away when it let Iowa State (5-0) go on an 18-3 run to effectively end the game late in the second half.

The Cyclones overwhelmed the Illini with stellar point guard play and six legitimate players who were threats to score from nearly anywhere on the floor. Second-chance buckets killed the Mike Thorne Jr.-less Illini, who sat out the second half with an apparent leg injury.

Still, the Illini looked much more like the Groce teams we saw and appreciated before last season’s end-of-year meltdown. They competed, trading blows with a team that could unseat Kansas for the Big 12 title this year. Illinois came out the aggressor, grabbing an early 12-6 lead and showed no trace of the listless bunch we saw get its doors blown off in Springfield time after time.

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Illinois, who trailed Chicago State by 14 in the second half just five days prior to the Iowa State game, looked like a legitimate Big Ten team in two neutral site games. And that’s encouraging for Illini fans, no matter the final outcome of Saturday’s title matchup.

Aside from Michigan State and Maryland, the Illini probably won’t face a more talented team than Iowa State the rest of the season. With a deep and veteran roster, the Cyclones looked like a legitimate national contender.

Georges Niang is the best four-year player in the country, and his 23 points and eight rebounds were just the first of the Illini’s concerns. Abdel Nader dropped 18, and point guard Monte Morris did his best John Wall impersonation with 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists. The Cyclones’ skill and athleticism were too much for the Illini in the end.

Everyone knew the return of Kendrick Nunn would make a difference, but the scope of his impact on this team wasn’t fully appreciated until this past weekend. Nunn is a massive upgrade at the shooting guard position and has transformed the Illini offense from limited to dangerous. When Nunn is on the floor in Groce’s ideal lineup, Illinois has four legitimate scoring options for opponents to worry about, with another one in Jalen Coleman-Lands off the bench.

Not only has Nunn’s arrival had a huge impact, but it came earlier than many expected. Groce gave no indication before the weekend that Nunn and point guard Jaylon Tate would be healthy enough to play, but both joined Leron Black in a return to the lineup Friday against UAB. Nunn scored 37 combined points over the two games and was named to the Emerald Coast Classic’s All-Tournament team alongside teammate Malcolm Hill, who was exceptional as well, Saturday, scoring a team-high 20 points.

Nunn’s return has helped shift the tone of this season, which was shrouded in doom and gloom last week. As him, Tate and Black continue to acclimate themselves to the lineup (assuming Thorne’s injury isn’t too serious), the Illini have the potential to be a potent offensive team.

There’s still work to do on defense, and the offense can’t sputter down the stretch like it did Saturday night against the Cyclones going forward. After a Tate layup gave the Illini a two-point lead with 11:33 to play, Illinois managed just two more buckets in the next nine minutes. Hill, who had been efficient offensively all evening, barely touched the ball.

Illinois will need to bring a similar effort to what they showed in the first 32 minutes Saturday against their next opponent, Notre Dame, at the unveiling of the new State Farm Center Wednesday night.

The Illini have potential to evolve into a good team as the season progresses, but fans’ tolerance of moral victories will wear thinner with each additional loss.

Alex is a senior in AHS.?


r[email protected]