After dropping three in a row in particularly bad fashion, getting a win was cathartic for Illinois on Wednesday. Not to mention necessary. But even though the Illini (13-8, 3-5) led wire-to-wire in the 76-64 victory over Iowa (11-10, 3-5), the game never felt like it was dominated by the hosts.
Not to say Illinois did nothing well, which is probably a good place to start.
Illinois started the game perfectly, with freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas getting his first start and sparking a 10-0 run from the Illini, who made their first 4 field goals. Lucas’s influence on the game was most noticeable by the fact Illinois assisted 18 of 26 made field goals against the Hawkeyes, 6 being from Lucas himself.
Beyond the arc, the Illini found their touch again, going 9-19, the team’s third highest percentage from three for the season (47%). Michael Finke was a big factor in the team’s range, knocking down 3 threes himself. The redshirt sophomore paced the Illini with 17 points in 21 minutes, to which he added 5 rebounds. Even Tracy Abrams was able to get a three in against Iowa, just his second in conference play and first in 24 calendar days (5 games).
The big men also did well, with Maverick Morgan continuing his string of solid play with 12 points and 7 rebounds and Leron Black contributing a workmanlike 10 points and 7 rebounds. The fourth Illini in double-digits scoring was Malcolm Hill, who tallied 11 in the win.
For all that was good, however, there was a lot of bad.
From the start, John Groce’s bench rotation felt forced. Though starting Lucas was undoubtedly a good call, he benched him at the first media timeout despite the fact the Illini were thriving with him running the offense. Lucas would end up playing 25 minutes, and it was not enough. Even the crowd got hot about Lucas coming out of the game, with the stadium (not just a small pocket of fans) booing when Jaylon Tate replaced the freshman in the second half.
Groce also had fans scratching their heads when he sat Finke immediately after the forward hit a second consecutive three in the first half. It seemed like the head coach was deliberately trying to cool his own guy off. Then, in the second half, as Illinois racked up a 19-point lead (its largest lead in any Big Ten game so far this season), Groce had his team slow the ball down. The plan did not change even when the Illini were clearly struggling with Iowa’s swarming defense. For several possessions in a row the Illini held the ball at the top of the key until the shot clock ticked down near 10 seconds, then scrambled and had to force bad shots. During one set Kipper Nichols, under the basket, failed to get a shot off at all, turning the ball over. As the Illini tried to bleed the clock, Iowa was able to eat into the lead and cut it to 9 before Illinois pulled away again.
Finally, for all the good Morgan and Black did, Illinois shooting in the post was atrocious, missing 16 shots in the paint. Just look at the shot chart. Now look at this gif of Morgan completely whiffing (why he didn’t dunk, and why no Illini ever seems to want to dunk the ball, is a mystery for the ages):
I…uh…welp pic.twitter.com/QmPhfBJw6p— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) January 26, 2017
More than anything, on Wednesday it felt like Iowa lost the game rather than Illinois won it. Peter Jok, the best scorer in the Big Ten, was clearly not himself. If he was playing through injury, he only hurt his team; he scored 10 points, but only tallied an efficiency score of 3, which is much more emblematic of what he looked like on the floor.
As a whole, Iowa just failed to play good basketball. The Hawkeyes set season lows for three point percentage (21.7%) and free throw percentage (43.8%). They also did this, which pretty much sums up their performance:
A win is a win, but with Wisconsin the next team to come to Champaign, this performance doesn’t make Illinois’s 10-2 record home look as intimidating as it should.