Another cupcake - another win. The Illini bounced back from their worst 20 minutes of basketball this year with a season best 52 point second half en route to a relatively comfortable 86-73 win over North Carolina Central. That's six straight wins to start the season - albeit mostly against directionals, hyphens, and D3s. Now comes a step up in class - with a road trip to Wake Forest and the official start of Big Ten play (@Northwestern and home vs Maryland) due on the schedule over the next 8 days.
Overall it's been an impressive start to the season save for the first half tonight and the final 4 minutes against Tenn-Martin, but a fair degree of skepticism is warranted to account for the low degree of difficulty so far.
There remains ample justification to hedge your bets on this team until we see how they respond to a higher pay grade next week.
I don't have any major complaints mind you - I mean we could be Wake Forest right now. (I apologize in advance for the jinx). Besides, you can only play what the schedule brings, and at 6-0 with an average scoring margin of 20-plus, the Illini have certainly taken care of business to date.
But as the competition graduates from the MEAC and the Ohio Valley to the ACC and the Big Ten next week, it's fair to wonder how this team will respond in a possession by possession game.
I have questions - so many questions...
Who is getting the ball for this team down one with 11 seconds left in the game? Mike Finke on a pop? A dump down to Leron Black? Mark Smith diving to the rim?
Can a defense predicated on perimeter pressure consistently get stops if they aren't able to turn teams over? Underwood was forced to scale back his pressure defense after an 0-6 start in Big 12 play last season, and it's no sure thing that the defense as it's currently structured can survive in the Big Ten either.
The Illini are among the NCAA leaders in both FT attempts and FT makes. Can they keep getting to the foul line? And...
Can they stop fouling themselves? Early foul trouble has led to some rather disjointed player rotations and prevented Underwood from fully exploring his offensive preferences. He admitted as much after the Augustana game - stating that he had yet to specifically scheme against an opponent due to the lack of comfort with his offense so far.
Will the rotation shrink? Underwood has consistently gone nine deep through these first six games, but it remains to be seen if he will maintain trust in such an expanded rotation - especially among the freshmen. Quite frankly, no player on this roster has been a consistent winner at the collegiate level, and as such, questions exist for each of them as well...
Mike Finke: He's this team's best shooter by a wide margin, but can he embrace the "gunner" role? Will he not only be willing to shoot - but will he demand the ball and start hunting shots like Underwood has encouraged him to do?
Mark Alstork: Will he come out of his shell? Billed as a go to scorer, he's been tentative and apprehensive so far, and the while the Illini don't need him to dominate the offense as he did at Wright State last season, they could absolutely use another reliable scoring option.
Mark Smith: For five of six games he's been as advertised and then some. A freshman in a grown man's body who has shown an immediate adeptness for absorbing contact and finishing at the rim. Will that translate when the defenders get bigger and stronger? And will he find his touch from deep?
Trent Frazier/Da'Monte Williams: Will these two freshmen remain steady rotation players? Or will t*hey settle more into spot minute roles?
Aaron Jordan: Will AJ continue to be AJ? A relative non-factor through his first two seasons, he's been a revelation to this point averaging double figures in scoring (11.8) and over four rebounds per game (3rd on the team). Underwood practically beams when he talks about him, and I would expect to see his minutes continue to rise.
Leron Black: As always with Leron - the question is can he stay on the floor? If he does you can pretty much mark him down for 12 and 8.
Te'Jon Lucas: Can he bounce back from a slow start? The sophomore struggled over the first several games but has since recovered with strong performances against Augustana and NC Central - especially on the defensive end. He also remains the team's best facilitator on offense.
Kipper Nichols: Just as Underwood asked him to do - can Kipper elevate his defensive game to match his versatile offensive repertoire and earn the trust from Underwood to play heavier minutes.
Now here's to a week of learning what this team is really all about. As Underwood said tonight - it's time for big boy basketball.
- The schedule has officially become a concern. In the season preview we discussed the non-conference schedule - it being of so much fluff. It's become even fluffier. Wake has been an unmitigated disaster, and Mizzou suddenly found itself without the number one freshman in the country. The strongest non-conference opponent may well end up being UNLV. The hope was that this young Illini team could navigate through the non-conference with only a couple of losses and then do it's best to build a tournament resume' in the Big Ten. Problem is, the Big Ten has been abjectly terrible through the first two weeks - with barely any marquee wins to date. Minnesota winning at Providence I guess? Whereas 9 or 10 Big Ten Conference wins has historically been a pretty sure bet for an NCAA berth, it may well take 11 this season.
- Mark Smith had his first "freshman growing pains" game. He's been too good so far for me to worry about one bad one, but I'll admit his three point shot is a concern. His most recent misses haven't really even been close. He appears to have developed a slight hitch in his jump shot that I don't don't see on his free throws, and that may need some shot-doctoring.
- These fouls are killing me. Another game - another 50 plus fouls. Over 300 combined through six games. Another 2 hour and 15 minute game. ANY contact on dribble penetration is a foul this season. I'm not sure what the answer is, but for someone with a 2 hour 45 minute drive home after these games, I need to lodge a complaint with the home office or something.