Offense erupts again as Illinois pounds Austin Peay

Dick Vitale can rest easy tonight, and save the acrobatics for March.

The legendary broadcaster once proclaimed that if Austin Peay beat Illinois in a 1987 NCAA Tournament matchup, he’d stand on his head. Sure enough, the 3-seed Illini were upset by the 14-seed Governors in the first round of March Madness, and Vitale kept his word. 

There was no such upset Friday night at State Farm Center. The Illini pounded Austin Peay 107-66 to move to 3-0 on the year. Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill had led the way with 16 points apiece.

“We played like a team,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. “I thought we moved the ball well.”

The Governors provided some length in the paint, but not much else. Illinois scored at will after settling into an offensive groove midway through the first half. 

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After three games and back-to-back 100-point eruptions, one thing has become clear: the 2014-15 Illini will not endure the scoring struggles that last year’s team encountered. The addition of Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Leron Black, plus the maturation of Hill and Kendrick Nunn have provided the Illini with an arsenal of capable scoring threats. Not to mention Rice is still doing his thing as a steadying force on both ends of the court.

So far, this team has shot its way out of every lull its encountered on the offensive end of the floor. Against the Governors, the Illini started 1-for-6 from three, eliciting slight groans from a fan base that has seen its share of trigger-happy Illinois teams over the years. However, Groce gives his squad the ultimate green light, and they kept letting it fly.

The result? Illinois went 13-for-19 from deep after the initial lull, allowing it to effectively end the game before the halftime show began. The Illini finished 14-for-25 from 3-point range, and their 29 combined threes over the last two games is the highest two-game total for Illinois since 2005. 

Remember 2005? I thought so. 

The Illini scored effectively in the paint, as well. Interior buckets from Black, Hill and Nnanna Egwu balanced the scoring in a fashion that will make it tough for opposing coaches to game-plan for the Illini in the future. 

This is the most balanced team Groce has had in his tenure at Illinois — five players scored in double figures Friday night. It looks like the days of anemic scoring are in the past. The Illini will have off-nights, like every team does, but they should have enough weapons to prevent any major scoring droughts.

And when they’re firing on all cylinders like the last two games? Look out. The rest of the Big Ten needs to be put on notice. 

“But it’s just Austin Peay,” your inner Illini fatalist is saying. “Wait until they do this against a good team.” 

True, Illinois hasn’t played anybody yet. But a contested three is a contested three, whether it comes against Austin Peay or Wisconsin. Sure, playing an inferior team increases the volume of easy looks you’ll get, but the Illini made more than their share of shots that will be available against any team on the schedule. At 100.3 points per game, these guys can fill it up. 

Some fans will grumble that Illinois is shooting too many threes, that it will haunt them later in the year. Love it or hate it, this air-raid offense is here to stay. The Illini still haven’t proved they can rebound or defend the paint at a high enough level yet, but they’ll get the chance to soon enough. Still, their offense alone should be enough to win a fair share of games this season.

Enjoy it, because Illinois hasn’t had a team this deep or dynamic in years. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.