Illinois basketball did everything in final nonconference game

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) draws contact while attempting a shot during the game against Kennesaw State at State Farm Center on Dec. 27, 2014. The Illini won 93-45.

Illinois did everything you could ask of it during its 93-45 demolition of Kennesaw State on Saturday night. 

The Illini scored at will, getting efficient looks while shooting 55.4 percent overall from the field. Rayvonte Rice led the way with 21 points on 7-for-7 shooting. Sixteen of his points came in the first half as he shredded the Kennesaw State defense.

Perhaps more encouraging was the level of intensity the Illini showed on the defensive end. They communicated, rotated and got in the passing lanes, forcing 16 Kennesaw State turnovers that resulted in multiple transition buckets. 

“I thought we played with great energy and passion,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. 

Now, there’s no doubt Kennesaw State is a bad team. The Owls really suffered on the interior, where they had virtually no size and depth and also no answer for Rice and Malcolm Hill when they penetrated the lane. 

We’ve seen this Illini team obliterate similarly awful competition before. They put up triple digits on Coppin State and Austin Peay, but this dominating performance was slightly different. The Illini didn’t simply rain threes against Kennesaw State; they moved the ball crisply, rarely settling for threes and often getting the best possible shot on each possession.

It was encouraging to see shooting guard Aaron Cosby find his stroke again as well, as he’s been floundering through a nearly season-long slump. Cosby shot five-of-10 from the field and broke off some athletic scoring drives in the lane to finish with 13 points. Cosby was removed from the starting lineup three games ago in favor of Kendrick Nunn, and it’s clear that the move by Groce has been an effective one so far. 

Although Cosby didn’t truly show signs of busting out of his shooting slump until Saturday night, he was effective in other areas of the Mizzou game, when he finished with seven rebounds. If these last two games were any indication that Cosby truly is rounding into his Seton Hall form, it couldn’t come at a better time with conference play approaching. 

Before the Kennesaw State game, I wrote that this team was still searching for an identity and that it’s still hard to determine the Illini’s true strengths. Until they show the capability to explode offensively against a good team like they do against poor teams, I’m convinced that this team’s best potential trait remains its tendency to play hard under its head coach. They certainly played with fire when they didn’t necessarily have to against a team like Kennesaw State. 

When asked, Groce didn’t hesitate to say what he’d like his team’s identity to be built around: defense and rebounding. But he stressed that they’re not where he hopes to be yet in those two aspects of the game.   

Like many teams, Illinois has its limitations on the court. Low-post scoring and its ability to defend the dribble-drive have been concerns thus far and figure to be problems going forward. But if Rice can continue to play out of his mind, if Hill and Cosby can be offensive threats and the rest of the team fill their roles effectively, Groce might have something here heading into Big Ten play. Besides Wisconsin, the rest of the conference is nothing to be feared. 

The glue holding this team together when it performs well will be a focused intensity, one that beats opponents back with hard, smart play until they give in. The key word here is focus, because we’ve seen the stage become too big and the Illini’s focus temporarily crumble, as it did against Miami, Villanova and Oregon. Illinois looks its best when it’s playing locked in and under control, moving the ball on offense and communicating with one another on defense. 

Big Ten play is officially here, as the Illini take on Michigan in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, followed by a trip to Ohio State on Saturday. Although Groce’s squad still lacks an obvious identity, they took a step in the right direction against Kennesaw State by finding strengths that it strayed from during the tough part of the nonconference schedule.

It’s crucial that they maintain a high level of play heading into next week. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.