It's been apparent to anyone watching over these first two weeks of the season that this Illinois team has yet to hit full stride. After five games Illinois has arrived at the 4-1 record most expected, but the journey to that record has not followed an easy road. Overtime against Nicholls State in the opener. A "grind it out" win at Grand Canyon. A late collapse in Tucson. A sluggish first half against Hawaii just two nights ago.
There is something to be said for baptism by fire, and obviously winning is better than losing some of these games (LOL NORTHWESTERN), but if you are consistently struggling to put away lower caliber teams, then it is fair to wonder about your own caliber. They say you can't learn much from a blowout win, but you can learn something from a lot of blowout wins.
We know that victory margin matters, or at the very least it tells us a good story. The moral of that story is that great teams beat bad teams, and tend to do so by a significant margin. They also rarely get blown out themselves. Consider scoring margin as eye test validation, or as they say in Vegas - good teams win, but great teams cover the spread. Do they say that in Vegas? Well, they should.
So while it's fair to fret over the schematic vagaries we've seen over the four games prior to tonight, I've taken a much more simplistic view of the start to this season. We should be blowing these teams out - but haven't been. We can talk all day about the deeper reasons behind some of these struggles, but the victory margin statistic concisely wraps everything up with a nice little bow.
I don't mean to imply that every one of these buy games requires a beat down of epic proportions, but at the end of the year, the list of teams with the highest victory margin is going to also be a list of NCAA tournament contenders. Not just participants - but legitimate title contenders.
Last season 21 teams finished the regular season with a scoring margin of +10 or better. 19 of those teams were NCAA Tournament participants - including every number one and number two seed.
Illinois' victory margin through the first 4 games was just +3. Skewed obviously by the 21 point loss to Arizona, but even in the three games vs Nicholls State, Grand Canyon, and Hawaii (a combined average KenPom ranking of 186) - the Illini were just +11. That's not exactly confidence inspiring.
These games against low major teams should be stick sharpeners. Blowing away inferior opponents in November and December is a trait of teams who have already established a comfort zone. It is clear the Illini have yet to find that zone.
Needless to say, I was looking for some dominance against a defensively challenged Citadel team playing their second of games on consecutive nights and who were also without their injured leading scorer. They were running on fumes and were ripe for a proper beating. We finally obliged - shaking off another slow start and riding a dominant front court performance en route to 51 second half points and an 85-57 (+28!) win.
We should expect (hope) to see more of the same this Saturday against Hampton (#215).
+The Illinois front court has been flat out dominant. The Citadel had no answer for Kofi Cockburn as he bulled his way to 18 points and a new Illinois freshman single game record 17 rebounds. He is easily the story of the season to this point, and deservedly so, but despite some early struggles, Giorgi Bezhanishvili is also starting to round back into form. After tonight the two are averaging over 25 points and 18 rebounds combined and look more and more comfortable together with each game.
+The three point shooting has officially become a concern. Despite a bunch of open looks, Illinois connected on only three deep balls tonight and are now shooting just 28% on the season. I have to believe these shooters will "regress" to their career norms over the course of the year, but it's fair to wonder if the new distance is having more of an effect than anticipated. Illinois needs to start making threes to help stretch the floor or it's going to start getting much easier for teams to scheme against Giorgi and Kofi.
+Deon Thomas stood to applaud when Cockburn corralled his record breaking 17th rebound tonight to break the record he had previously shared with Damir Krupalija. He did the same after watching Giorgi Bezhanishvili break his single game freshman scoring record last season. While it's certainly great that we've finally been able to recruit players capable of breaking records such as these, it also highlights just how great Deon was at Illinois. People forget that.
+After five games it's now pretty obvious that this Illini team has a brand new identity. This year's team is rebounding everything, getting to the foul line, not fouling themselves, and playing at a slow tempo - pretty much the polar opposite of Underwood's first two teams at Illinois. When asked about the change in style after the game tonight, Underwood gave a refreshingly honest answer - stating that after some "self-evaluation" he realized he needed to make some changes based upon last year's struggles, and also because of the changes in the makeup of the roster (the Kofi factor). After talking so much about having successfully established an identity and culture at the end of last season, it's fascinating that he went about the next six months creating a brand new one.
+A quick recruiting note. Top 40 shooting guard Adam Miller from Morgan Park HS is set to make his decision between Illinois, Arizona, and Louisville tonight. He will do so at the Michael Jordan store in downtown Chicago - where Ayo Dosunmu made public his choice to go to Illinois two years ago. If Miller picks Illinois (as is being predicted based upon the 100% Crystal Ball forecast) he will join Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins to form what will easily be Underwood's best recruiting class to date. A foundation is forming.