Illinois reveals new identity in first two victories of the season

The identity of the Illinois men’s basketball team has changed.

No longer are the Illini the 3-point happy, offense-dependent team of a year ago. This Illinois team is defined by intensity and aggressiveness, as it showed in its first two games of the season against Alabama State and Jacksonville State.

The word aggressive was repeated over and over again after Illinois’ 80-63 win over Alabama State on Friday and with good reason. Aggressiveness is the only reason the Illini won.

The Illini can’t shoot and they know it. After shooting 4-for-20 from downtown against Alabama State on Friday, the Illini attempted just three 3-pointers in the first half against Jacksonville State on Sunday. None went in.

If Illinois is going to accomplish anything this year, the offense will have to play around the rim. Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand quickly got the message.

Rice and Bertrand took turns as the leading scorers for the Illini in the first two games of the season. Rice scored 22 and 13, respectively, while Bertrand scored 14 and 20 points in the two games. Their combined field goal percentage in the two contests was 63 percent.

The duo led an Illinois offense that was paint-oriented. Bertrand and Rice excelled at setting up their own drives with the dribble. They both used their strength and athleticism to finish at the rim, leading to their high field goal percentages.

Nnanna Egwu gave the Illini an outlet when they struggled to get to the basket off the dribble. Egwu’s rejuvenated post game extended from the exhibition games into Illinois’ first two contests. Egwu’s post fadeaway is unblockable; he connected on it four or five times in both games without a miss.

The two biggest stats for Egwu this weekend were his seven blocks and two fouls. Egwu averaged more than three fouls a game last season, often having to sit out contests because of foul trouble. The Roy Hibbert-esque verticality is paying off for Egwu early on.

When I talked to Bertrand before the season about the NCAA’s point of emphasis on hand-checks this season, he was unsure if the change would help or hurt the Illini. Early on, the Illini have benefitted from the extra whistles.

Illinois followed up a 30 free-throw attempt game against Alabama State with 28 attempts on Sunday. The Illini almost had as many free attempts (19) as field goal attempts (24) in the first half against Jacksonville State. When Illinois’ shots aren’t falling, which could happen frequently this season without many shooters around, free throws are an easy way to score.

Of course there’s still areas to work on, such as defensive rebounding (Illinois has allowed 35 offensive rebounds through two games) and forcing turnovers (Alabama State and Jacksonville State combined for 15 turnovers), but the aggressive mind set is there.

Illinois’ inability to the shoot the ball might not be a bad thing. It gives Illinois even more urgency to feed the ball into the paint and continue to be aggressive on both ends of the floor.

Alabama State and Jacksonville State may not have given Illinois the best competition, but as Groce said after the first win, his players “had it”.

The effort was there, the spirit was there, and most importantly, Illinois was aggressive. They’re 2-0 because of it.

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