The Fighting Illini took the floor in Champaign tonight amid scores of questions.
Their coach of five years, John Groce, was let go on the previous Saturday and the Illini missed on their goal to make the NCAA Tournament. How would they respond to an NIT match up against a close regional school?
It didn’t take long to find out.
The Illini jumped out on the Crusaders 16-6 in the opening minutes of Tuesday night’s game and never looked back. Before the halfway point of the first half, the lead was already in double digits. The Illini would continue their offensive barrage to the break with a 41-24 lead. Malcolm Hill paced the Illini with 13 points in 14 minutes.
The second half was more of the same for the Illini. Valparaiso never got closer than 15 points and Illinois (19-14) was able to clear the benches and defeat the Crusaders 82-57. Hill finished with 25 points. Valparaiso guard Tevonn Walker also scored 25 to lead the Crusaders (24-9).
What can we take from Illinois’ victory over the Crusaders?
What We Learned:
1. Illinois responded well to adverse conditions.
As mentioned, tonight’s game could have many different ways for the Illini. It was impossible to predict how Illinois was going to respond to their coach being fired.
It went about as well as you could have expected.
Interim coach Jamall Walker exuded calm and collectiveness on the sidelines. On the court, his team came out prepared, aggressive and made quick work of the Crusaders.
Now, some will say things like, “where was this all season?”, but it is nice to see the six seniors on the Illini team respond with maturity and focus. The firing wasn’t a result anyone wanted on the team, but with a response like tonight, it signals this team could go far in this tournament.
Tonight, they were led by a familiar face.
2. Malcolm Hill returned to form.
Illinois needed the old Malcolm Hill tonight, and they got him.
The 6’6” senior suffered a brutal game against Michigan last Thursday scoring only 4 points on 1-8 shooting. As mentioned today, a key indicator of how Illinois was responding to the Groce firing would be the play of Hill. He didn’t disappoint.
The Crusaders had no answer for one of the best scorers in the Big Ten. Hill scored 25 points wherever and however he wanted. In 27 minutes of play, he was 7-12 from the field, 4-7 from distance and 7-8 from the line.
He also grabbed three rebounds and committed zero turnovers. It was the highest point total from Hill since 32 points against IUPUI in early December.
Outside of Hill’s scoring, Illinois also ramped up the effort on the defensive end.
3. Stingy Illini defense could mean a deep NIT run.
The Illini defense has come and gone in spurts this season.
Illinois started the first four games by not allowing anyone over 70 points (4-0). This included NCAA Tournament team, Northern Kentucky. Then they game up over 70 points in 7 of their next 8 games (5-3).
Big Ten play began and the Illini continued their struggles on the defensive end. They gave up 84 to Maryland (loss), 91 to Purdue (loss) and 96 to Indiana (loss). It looked grim as the they started the latter half of conference play.
Then something strange happened. Illinois started defending again. The Illini only gave up over 70 points once in their final nine conference games (5-3).
The defense slipped again against Michigan in the conference tournament, but tonight it roared back to life.
The Crusaders found almost no open shots all game and only shot 36% from the field. From three-point range, Valparaiso managed only a 3-18 mark. Outside of the 25 from Walker, no other Crusader was in double figures. Illinois also amassed seven steals, five blocks and held the defensive rebound advantage 30-19.
One will have to see if this defensive effort will continue in their second round game, but the Illini are so much better when they commit on the defensive end. Tonight was a great example.
The Fighting Illini responded well in their first game without John Groce by pummeling the Valparaiso Crusaders 82-57. The Illini jumped out on the Crusaders early on and dominated the home contest from Champaign. Senior Malcolm Hill was excellent with 25 points on 7-12 shooting.
The Illini now await the winner of Boise State and Utah in the second round.