Reinforcements arrive as Illini blast Blazers

By Alex Roux

Illinois head coach John Groce has always been coy with updates on his injured players.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, when Groce announced a few hours before tipping off against UAB in the Emerald Coast Classic that junior guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn would return to the lineup from their respective injuries. Leron Black also returned to action after sitting out last game with a sore knee.

The reinforcements made all the difference, and the Illini rolled to a 72-58 win over the Blazers Friday night and improved to 3-3 on the season with the victory.

In his first game since last season after undergoing surgery on his left thumb, Nunn poured in a team-high 18 points off the bench. Black added 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and Tate spelled Khalid Lewis at the point guard position.

But their impact wasn’t limited to personal stats. With Groce’s entire roster at his disposal, Illinois looked like a completely different team against the Blazers. Everything that had haunted the Illini on their way to a 2-3 start — awful three-point defense, slow starts and extended scoring droughts —vanished Friday.

Illinois forced 16 UAB turnovers, led at halftime for the first time this season and shot 48 percent from the field. It was night and day from the dreadful basketball we were exposed to at the Illini’s temporary home in Springfield.

Even though he didn’t start, Nunn’s 31 minutes were second-most on the team behind Malcolm Hill’s 33. Nunn’s range and handles help open up the Illini offensive attack, giving them another weapon that can score from anywhere on the floor. With big men Mike Thorne Jr. and Maverick Morgan putting up a combined 20 points from the block, the Blazers couldn’t keep up.

Illinois’ tempo on both ends of the court Friday was refreshing to watch. A defense that couldn’t contain Chicago State Monday was active in the passing lanes and forced UAB into uncomfortable perimeter shots. It helped the Illini that the Blazers lived up to their reputation as a poor 3-point shooting team, converting on just 5-of-23 treys on the evening. Credit Illinois for taking advantage of a favorable matchup.

Another notable difference was Tate’s urgency on the secondary break; he immediately looked to push the ball in transition off of missed UAB shots. Playing fast is a strategy Groce’s teams try sporadically—and usually look much better doing it — but tend to get away from doing consistently.

UAB is a fairly talented and athletic team that will have a good chance to return to the NCAA tournament this season, which means Friday’s result is a solid one for an Illini team looking to find their footing after an extremely rocky start to the season. Next up is Iowa State in the Emerald Coast Classic title game Saturday, and the No. 4 Cyclones are a whole different animal.

Fred Hoiberg left Ames to coach the Chicago Bulls, but he didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Iowa State’s robust roster is probably what Groce was shooting for when he tried to build his Illinois program around transfers and stud recruits, but the strategy worked better for Hoiberg.

Talented transfers served the Cyclones program well over the past few years while core players developed, and now coach Steve Prohm has a deep and balanced team that looks poised to wreak havoc on the Big 12 this year. They took care of Virginia Tech 99-77 Friday to move to 4-0, and have only faced a moderate challenge from Colorado in their first game this season.

It’ll be a pick-your-poison situation for Illini defenders Saturday, as the Cyclones have five players averaging over 12 points per game. The heart and soul of their team is 6-foot-8 senior Georges Niang, who somehow is still playing college basketball in a career that has felt like it has lasted an eternity.

Seriously though, Niang is really good, averaging double figures in scoring and shooting near 50 percent in all four years at Iowa State.

Niang and Groce are both disciples of motivational author Jon Gordon’s book, The Energy Bus. It must be a really good read, because it seems like every successful, high-energy individual has read it. I have no doubt both teams will bring energy Saturday, and it will take an exceptional effort from Illinois to match Iowa State’s talent.

Either way, one team’s bus will roll home with an Emerald Coast Classic title.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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