The closest Big Ten game of the day came in Champaign, Illinois, as the Illini held off a second-half comeback to hang on and beat Tennessee-Martin in the Global Sports Invitational.
The Skyhawks had two chances to send the game to overtime, but missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final 10 seconds to let the Illini hang on and improve to 2-0 on the young season.
Let’s take a look at what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. The Illini are going to be inconsistent
A young Illinois team with just two seniors on the roster looked the part on Sunday. The Illini took a 44-29 lead into halftime and looked like they were going to roll over the Skyhawks, who were coming off a 102-91 overtime loss at Marshall on Friday.
But the Illini gave up their 19-point second half lead almost immediately, going scoreless for a four-minute stretch that saw the Skyhawks go on a 14-0 run to pull within 51-47 with 13:20 remaining.
Those droughts are likely to happen this season for an Illini team that is going to take some time to come together. There is scoring punch, as six Illinois players have already scored in double figures this season, which opened with a 102-55 win over Southern on Friday. However, there aren’t necessarily any establish guys that the Illini can turn to when they need a bucket.
2. Leron Black can get it going
Leron Black is one of the longest-tenured Illinois players, but he’s in a new position this season and he showed Illinois fans what they’re looking for on Sunday.
The redshirt junior forward is being asked to score more to fill some of the void left by Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Tracy Abrams, Illinois’ top-three scorers last season. Black, who was fourth on the team last year with 8.1 points per game, broke through on Sunday, scoring a team-high 23 points to lead the Illini.
Black came out looking to attack, scoring the first basket of the game and shooting 5-of-6 from the field to score 13 first-half points. Black, who hasn’t been a heavy-volume shooter to this point of his career, was efficient on Sunday, shooting 8-of-14 from the field and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line. He also appears to know where his spots on the floor are, as he didn’t attempt a 3-pointer for the second straight game.
With Black just two days removed from a 14-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort in 15 minutes against Southern, the coaching staff has to like what they’ve gotten from him thus far.
3. Perimeter game needs work
The Illini have yet to get anything to drop from behind the arc. After shooting just 19.0 percent (4-for-21) from behind the 3-point line against Southern, the Illini shot just 28.6 percent (6-for-21) on 3-pointers on Sunday.
They don’t have enough talent to continue to win with those numbers. But those numbers will rise. The Illini have guys that are comfortable from long range. Those guys have just been cold thus far.
Aaron Jordan has been Illinois’ best outside shooter through two games. The junior guard came off the bench to score 10 points on Sunday, ,shooting 2-of-5 from behind the arc. In the opener, Jordan went 2-for-3 from deep and shared the team lead with 17 points. That scoring punch off the bench will be huge for a team that is going to need that in order to prevent droughts.
Mark Alstork, a graduate transfer from Wright State, is going to be counted on from deep this season. The 6-foot-5 guard shot 38.7 percent (70-for-181) from the 3-point line last season and 37.8 percent (54-for-143) in 2015-16, but is just 1-for-7 so far this year. Alstork has still find ways to contribute. He was held to just 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting against Tennessee-Martin, but he put up 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against Southern.
Trent Frazier (1-for-8), Mark Smith (1-for-6) and Michael Finke (1-for-5) have also struggled from behind the arc thus far.
A three-point win over Tennessee-Martin isn’t ideal, but it’s not unexpected for an Illinois team that is adjusting to heavy departures under first-year head coach Brad Underwood.
The Illini are going to develop and knock some teams off, but it’ll be interesting to see how they fare when they host in-state rival DePaul on Friday. Illinois still has several light opponents on its schedule to help tune-up prior to Big Ten season.