Illinois Basketball: Takeaways from this weekend’s action

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Aaron Jordan
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Aaron Jordan /

The Illinois basketball team picked up two victories this weekend to start off the 2017-2018 season at 2-0.  But, these wins could not have been more different.

In the opener Friday night, the Illini were able to take home a 102-55 win over the Southern Jaguars.  This was a very impressive win for Brad Underwood and crew, although the opponent was not very good by any means.

During this game, some things really stood out to me.  To start, I thought the Illini defense looked very strong.  I was impressed by how quickly they were able to swarm to the ball and force turnovers.  This was a very good sign, although the Jaguars were not very strong with the ball at all.

I also really liked to see how fast Illinois pushed the ball up the floor.  Underwood’s system is a much different sight for Illini fans compared to John Groce’s system, which relied on slow and steady scoring (or no scoring at all).  I think once Underwood’s players get more acclimated to his system, this team will be very tough to stop in the Big Ten.

Some players that really stood out to me during this game were Mark Alstork and Aaron Jordan.  Alstork finished the game with 17 points and 10 rebounds.  He showed great poise and was patient, even though he missed his first few shorts.  Jordan finished with a career-high 17 points, which is a great sign for the Illini moving forward.  In my opinion, Jordan should’ve gotten a lot more playing time under Groce.

Sunday night’s game against the UT-Martin Skyhawks was a little bit of a different story.  After the Illini opened up a 51-33 lead, the Skyhawks were able to fight their way back into the game, eventually pulling to within three at 77-74 late in the game, which ended up being the final.  Despite the concerning lack of aggressiveness and poise late in the game, I don’t think this should be anything to worry about for Illinois fans.

To start, UT-Martin has won 20-plus games in their last three seasons.  So, this is no pushover team.  Although Illinois should have still won by double-digits, it was good to see them step up in the end and pull out the victory.  In recent years, I don’t know if Illinois pulls out this game in the closing minutes (a la the Winthrop game last year).

Although Illinois made some crucial mistakes throughout the game, I think there are still some positives to take away from the win.  Obviously, Leron Black was a beast, leading the team with 23 points and 8 rebounds.  Jordan was a major contributor again, giving the team a spark when they needed it.  I thought Mark Smith looked pretty solid as well, especially with his aggressiveness.

Some areas of concern for this game come from the on-ball defense and the turnovers late.  The defense looked great in spurts, but they had way too many breakdowns schematically for my liking.  Their turnovers are to be expected from such a young team, especially when they haven’t worked on breaking a zone defense and press, as Underwood emphasized in his post-game presser.

Next: 3 hot takes from Illini win over Southern

Overall, I like the way this year’s team is headed.  As I said before, there are going to be some growing pains early in the season.  But, I really think this team will come together at the right time and improve each and every day throughout the season.