Illinois muscles past American in weekend tune-up

In an afternoon that saw ranked teams like Michigan and Miami fall at home in upsets, Illinois basketball avoided that same fate.

The No. 24 Illini methodically took care of American University in a 70-55 win Saturday at State Farm Center. What John Groce’s squad lacked in spectacle they made up for with an effective, businesslike approach, executing on both ends of the floor and beating American at its own “slow-it-down” game. 

“I was really proud of our guys, the way they grinded,” Groce said following the game.

The game was never in doubt, and it’s hard to blow out a team like American due to its plodding style of play. The Eagles entered the game allowing an average of just 49.2 points per game, but the Illini put up 70. Thanks to a great defensive effort, Illinois kept the Eagles at arm’s length throughout. The Illini forced 19 turnovers and made American earn each of its 55 points.

The only truly disappointing aspect of the afternoon was the normally sure-handed Illini turning the ball over 14 times, but I’m willing to bet this game was an aberration turnover-wise rather than a sign of things to come. 

We’ve grown accustomed to Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill carrying the offensive load, so Saturday’s stat line shouldn’t surprise anyone. Rice and Hill led the way with 10 and 13 points, respectively, and it was just another day at the office for those two. Seriously, they’re really good. 

What was pleasantly surprising was the impressive stats off the bench for backup point guard Jaylon Tate and backup center Maverick Morgan. Tate finished with eight points and four assists, evenly splitting time with starting point guard Ahmad Starks.

Morgan added a career-high eight points and four boards just four days after not seeing a single minute of playing time in the loss to Miami. Groce called on Morgan earlier in the week to “play better, period,” and the sophomore big man responded nicely.

“It was great to see Mav join the party,” Groce said.

Starks and fellow guard Aaron Cosby also showed signs of busting out of their recent shooting slumps. The two combined to go 5-of-11 from the field, which is an encouraging improvement after shooting a combined 4-of-35 in their two previous games.

Overall, this game served its purpose as a perfect tune-up before the Illini clash with No. 10 Villanova at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. While not super-impressive, American was a quality team that had a solid game plan coming in. They just weren’t quite talented enough to give the Illini serious trouble. So now Groce has just two days to prepare his team for the Jimmy V Classic, where the Illini will be in the national spotlight with an opportunity for a marquee win once again. No Illini player registered more than 30 minutes on Saturday, and the team will need fresh legs to run with the Wildcats next week.

It’s too early to tell how good the Illini will be this season, but Saturday they did what good teams do:

They took care of business. 

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