Illinois basketball quickly improves in first two games

By Sean Neumann

The same 15 players were on the court in Illinois’ first two games, but it seemed like a different team came to play in each.

The Illini struggled to pull away from Georgia Southern in Friday night’s 80-71 win, but quickly buried Coppin State 114-56.

Friday’s game had 14 lead changes, but Illinois only needed one on Sunday with a different energy on the court.

Illinois head coach John Groce was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm the team brought in the season opener Friday night.

“Usually in an opener guys are excited to play,” Groce said. “We had to adjust our approach.”

The team’s mental adjustments between Friday and Sunday led to improvements on the scoreboard.

Hot shooting from guard duo

Illinois proved the team’s ability to control games with shooting in Sunday night’s win.

Transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks had nine 3-pointers of their own and combined for 35 points.

“We’ve got some guys who can make shots,” Groce said. “That’s part of who we are.”

The Illini made 15 three-pointers and had six players in double-digits.

“They’re really balanced,” Coppin State coach Michael Grant said. “I was very impressed with the way they shared the basketball.”

The team shot 55.4 percent Sunday night after shooting 41.1 percent two days before.

Rebounding still a concern

Groce voiced concern about Illinois’ big men having trouble rebounding and said the team “hasn’t been up to snuff” in that category.

The Illini were out-rebounded 41-34 Friday night by Georgia Southern.

“We got beat up pretty good on the glass,” Groce said. “At some point it will cost us. I gave them the Mark Twain quote: ‘Some people learn by listening, some people learn by seeing and some people learn by peeing on an electric fence.’”

The quote is really from the early 20th Century humorist Will Rogers, but Groce still got his point across.

Center Nnanna Egwu has struggled early with just three rebounds in the first two games.

The senior has just three rebounds in two games.

Malcolm Hill led the Illini with seven rebounds Friday, but Groce was looking for more out of the sophomore.

Hill improved his rebounding total to nine Sunday and said he played more physical.

Defensive consistency

Illinois allowed Georgia Southern to erase three 10-point leads and hang in the game late.

But the script was flipped Sunday.

The Illini had 28 points off turnovers against Coppin State after scoring just nine against Georgia Southern two days before.

Groce said Sunday’s game was the first time he felt the Illini had an edge to them defensively. And if the team’s first two games are any indication, Illinois needs that edge to succeed throughout the year.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Neumannthehuman.