Sample sizes matter.
Maybe you expected a more Dickensian lede, as the two games Illinois played this weekend certainly told two different tales of highs and lows, good basketball and barely-getting-by basketbal. However, Illinois has played just 80 minutes of basketball out of at least 1,280 this season. Thus, there is almost nothing we can say for sure at this point actually matters.
In total, a college basketball season is still a small sample. But by the time the regular season has concluded there’s enough data to make reasonable decisions about which teams are good and which are not. After two games, however, we’re just recklessly speculating.
All we’ve seen so far are the beginnings of trends. They’re not significant yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t recklessly speculate all we want.
Illinois is not shooting within 7 seconds
What it could mean: This team can’t play Underwood’s system
Even though the Illini aren’t quite meeting Underwood’s 7-second ideal, Weber or Groce basketball this is not.
Perhaps the most striking thing in both the 102-55 win over Southern and the 77-74 win over UT-Martin is how fast the ball moves. The Illini got up and down the floor speedily and, when they got to the offensive end, no one stood still, the ball moved, passes zipped from guards to post players and back, and shots were taken.
On the defensive end the Illini showed more intent, quicker hands, and great energy. The defenders were more active, doubling opponents more often and disrupting passing and dribbling. I saw more players diving for loose balls in these two games than I can remember from the entire 2016-17 season. Even if Underwood’s ideal system hasn’t come to fruition (and remember, it’s been 2 games), it’s clear he’s had a big impact on the style of play already.
Illinois is 2-0
What it could mean: Illinois is good enough to win out its nonconference schedule.
The 100-point win against Southern was an awesome way to start the Brad Underwood era at Illinois. Five guys got to double figures in scoring (Michael Finke, Leron Black, Mark Alstork, Aaron Jordan, and Kipper Nichols), literally everyone played a minimum of 3 minutes, and walk-on Drew Cayce scored his first points for the Illini. As fun and good as the game was, it means almost literally nothing. Southern is a bad basketball team. Everyone on their bench looked like Illinois’s freshmen, in bad need of a strength coach and some good coaching. When the Illini punched, the Jaguars simply could not punch back.
UT-Martin, on the other hand, punched back and matched every Illini run with a run of their own. It’s definitely a positive development that Illinois could hold off the Skyhawks in the end, but they’re not a good comp for the rest of Illinois’s nonconference schedule. Mizzou looks good, really good; Grand Canyon might be surprisingly great; UNLV topped 100 points in its opener. The challenges that await are much more fearsome than what Illinois has seen.
The Illini will grow as a team with each game, but just eking out a win against UT-Martin most likely means are going to meet their match soon.
Black and Finke have scored 61 points
What it could mean: The Illini offense runs through the big men
There was hardly a question Illinois’s juniors, Black and Finke, needed to be the leaders of the team. After 2 games, having the duo among the team’s top scorers and accounting for 35% of team scoring has maybe been the singular key to winning. Finke has posted 12 in each game, whereas Black has posted 14 and a career-high 23 against Southern and UT-Martin, respectively.
This was not unappreciated by Underwood. After the Southern win he said, “We need that [leadership], we have to have that. Those are vets who have played in college games who know what it takes. But it was easy tonight, we need it when it’s not easy.” It wasn’t easy on Sunday against the Skyhawks, but the big men still got the job done. It’s safe to say that every game will not be dominated by one of Black or Finke, but even when other players take control, these two will still be pivotal.
Mark Alstork plays like Rayvonte Rice
What it could mean: He’s good for at least 16 points per game
Seeing number 24, with that hair, wrapping around defenders on a drive to the basket -- if you didn’t have a flashback to Rayvonte Rice, you haven’t been watching Illini basketball very long. Against Southern, Alstork was the Centennial and Illini guard reincarnate. His 17 points and 10 rebounds were huge, particularly the rebounding; a good rebounding guard is something the Illini have sorely missed since Rice’s graduation.
In the UT-Martin game, however, Alstork went AWOL, with just 3 points and and as many rebounds, tempering excitement over the transfer guard. The truth of Alstork is probably somewhere between the two games, but hopefully closer the Southern version of himself. At Wright State he beat up on teams like the Jags and Skyhawks routinely, so his performance on Sunday is likely an aberration. The big question, however, is how he plays when the opponents are Big Ten teams. And thanks to a weird schedule this year, we’ll find out in less than a month.
Aaron Jordan has scored 27 points in 2 games
What it could mean: Jordan is Illinois’s next-man-up
Twenty-seven points is 117% of Jordan’s point total for all of the 2016-17 season (23). A junior, Jordan has had plenty of time to mature into a well-rounded player, but because he seemed to take a step back between freshman and sophomore years (103 vs. 23 points, respectively), his role this year seemed questionable.
Jordan’s output in these two games (ignoring strength of competition) has made him seem like a great weapon off the bench for Underwood. Even if he’s not able to provide double digits in scoring each game, and it’s still likely he is not, he has made huge strides if he can be trusted with significant minutes. The junior season breakout is not so common in college basketball anymore, but Jordan might be the kind of old-school player to make it reality at Illinois.
Mark Smith has started both games
What it could mean: The freshman is a sensation
It took Smith about a half to settle into college basketball, after that he looked like he had been doing it a lot longer than he has. The second half against Southern, of course, was easy for all the Illini, but it was Smith’s performance Sunday that really impressed.
Not only did Smith run the game from the point, he also took the ball directly to the rack -- and through defenders -- multiple times against UT-Martin. Something about his play, the way he could look directly into the camera and flex after sinking an and-one, tells me Smith is all he was hyped up to be. Maybe more.
Of course, there’s a lot more that happened in these first two games for Illinois. Te’Jon Lucas played like a leader and acted like one when he was not on the court; Illinois played 3 point guards at once (!); Greg Eboigbodin blocked two shots; Da’Monte Williams looked ahead of schedule. I could write a few hundred words about each of these topics and more. But what does it all mean? Because of the size of the sample, probably nothing. All we can do is keep watching.
Photos from the Southern game by Chris Davies; photos from the UT-Martin game by Mike Pauza