Illinois shows off aggressiveness in the Orange and Blue scrimmage

Minutes into the Orange and Blue scrimmage on Thursday, the new-look Illini showed why change isn’t always a bad thing. 

Right from the start, the Illini were attacking the paint with regularity, something that was rarely seen from the 3-point dependent squad last season (41.9 percent of Illinois’ field-goal attempts were 3-pointers a season ago). The Orange and Blue squads were working the offense through the paint, establishing an in-and-out game that proved to be effective. A John Groce-coached offense with so many paint touches was a different but welcoming sight.

This team isn’t built to be a 3-point shooting machine, like last season’s squad. Illinois’ three best long-distance shooters from a season ago are gone. Groce has said this team is actually shooting better in practice than it was at the same time a year ago, but it’s hard to believe the group will keep it up throughout the season. Jon Ekey is the only active Illinois player to make at least a third of his 3-pointers in a season in his career. Illinois is going to need to attack the paint to be effective offensively this season, and Thursday’s scrimmage was a step in the right direction.

Nnanna Egwu roamed the paint more than any player during the scrimmage. The 6-foot-11 center has struggled to use his size in the past. Seventy percent of Egwu’s field-goal attempts came from 2-point jumpers last season, according to Hoop-Math. Egwu has a pretty stroke, but it’s nice to see him play in the paint every once in a while. Egwu did that on Thursday, finishing with 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field. Egwu played with an edge in the post, using his body to get a deep post position while also showing off a gorgeous post fadeaway. 

Rayvonte Rice got in the act as well. Rice used his strength to bowl toward the rim, often finishing through contact to score the bucket. The junior transfer recorded 17 points while shooting 6-of-10 from the field. All of his points came from around the basket area or at the line with the exception of a made 3-pointer.  

The aggressive play was infectious. Illinois attempted a whopping 33 free throws in the scrimmage. Mike LaTulip even got to the line 10 times. Many of the free throws came from chippy fouls, but the aggressiveness was there.

Tracy Abrams (six points) and Joseph Bertand (four points) were quiet on Thursday, but both of their styles of play fit a more paint-oriented offense. The pair combined for only 48 3-pointers at a 29 percent clip last season. Expect to see Groce put the ball in Abrams’ and Bertrand’s hands in isolation sets frequently throughout the season to take advantage of their penetrating abilities. Rice, Abrams and Bertand are far and away the best players on the team at getting to the rim off the dribble. 

Illinois hasn’t necessarily found its identity in one scrimmage, but the early signs are encouraging. Let’s see if Illinois continues to pass up perimeter shots and embrace the paint.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]