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After disaster was narrowly averted in Illinois' season opening win against Nicholls State on Tuesday, the angst so familiar to Illini fans immediately bubbled to the surface. Suddenly this two-game road trip across the state of Arizona became potentially season defining. Coming back from the desert 1-2 would not have been a death blow to the season, but it would have forced the Illini into catch-up mode before we even got to Thanksgiving. Plus the feeling of dread would have been unbearable.
A split of these two games was essential if for nothing else but to assuage the fragile psyche of Illini Nation. For that anyway, mission accomplished. The 83-71 win over Grand Canyon in their disco mosh pit of a basketball arena guarantees the Illini will return from the desert with no worse than 2-1 on the young season. File this one in the "any road win is a good win" category. Underwood only had three road wins on his Illinois resume' prior to tonight, and although GCU may not be a great team, tonight still goes down as a Quadrant 2 win for NCAA tournament seeding purposes.
The Illini controlled the game throughout - never trailing from the 15:00 mark in the first half - and despite a little shakiness down the stretch, they never allowed GCU to get within a single possession the entire second half. In contrast to Tuesday's near collapse, Illinois finished strong - outscoring the Antelopes 12-4 over the final four minutes. So now they can head down I-10 to Tucson to play Arizona on Sunday night with house money in their pocket.
It's only been two games, but if these first two are any indication, this is going to be a dramatically different looking Illinois team on both ends of the floor compared to Underwood's first two years. On offense the Illini have slowed the tempo and appear to be trying to bludgeon teams to death - relying heavily on low post scoring, offensive rebounding, and getting to the foul line. The offense has struggled to create primary looks out of the spread - partially due to a lack of outside scoring punch - converting just 28% on three point attempts so far, but it's made up for that with 15 second chance points in each of the first two games. The offense figures to get a boost when the shots start to fall for Trent Frazier - which is only a matter of time.
Even more dramatic have been the changes to the defense. We anticipated we might see more zone compared to previous years, and while the Illini have done that on occasion against out of bounds plays, it seems clear that the base scheme has been tweaked well beyond a couple of zone looks here and there.
Even with Nicholls State practically daring Illinois to match its aggressive style on Tuesday, the Illini dialed back the pressure. It was an eyebrow raising development for those who have gnashed so many teeth about Illinois' hyper aggressive defensive scheme.
Against GCU, the Illini took a page from the Texas Tech playbook in attempting to prevent the ball from getting to the middle of the floor - pushing ball handlers to the sidelines and baseline. It's a pretty good style to emulate - the Red Raiders have been #3 and #1 respectively in defensive efficiency the last two seasons. The Illini certainly appear to have the makings of a strong rebounding group - a luxury which can cover up some other deficiencies and allow Underwood to experiment with some adjustments.
You can see it on the floor and in the box score - with both turnover rate and foul rate trending downward considerably. Still, early returns have been mixed. Although Nicholls State and GCU combined to shoot just 42% on two point attempts (be still my heart) and only shot 27 total free throws, Illinois also suffered far too many on-ball defensive lapses and have allowed 41% shooting from the three point line.
It will be intriguing to see the defensive approach come Sunday in Tucson when Illinois won't have the talent and size advantage they enjoyed in these first two games. It's going to take something special to win at the McKale Center - another really tough place to play. We will be substantial underdogs. KenPom rates the probability of an Illini win at just 31% - but this is certainly a golden opportunity to make an early statement. As we discussed in the Season Preview, if we do manage to pull off the upset, we likely return to Champaign ranked in the top 25 for the first time in five years. Maybe we can invoke the spirit of Lucas Johnson to carry us to victory.
+Kofi Cockburn finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds in just 22 minutes of play. This kid is a load. It was his second double double in his first two collegiate games - the first Illini to do so since Efrem Winters.
+The Illini had 52 rebounds against GCU - following up a 53 rebound effort against Nicholls State. Per @IlliniStats, the Illini have only had 50+ rebounds two other times in the last 12 seasons. That volume isn't sustainable (there have to be a LOT of missed shots), but the rebounding rate (52%) is seriously impressive.
+Illinois has shot 59 free throws combined in their first two games. It took them four games to reach that number last year.
+Andres Feliz has been an assassin. Ayo Dosunmu has struggled to find his rhythm, but Feliz has more than filled in as the Illini closer. The kid is just a winner.
+Apart from Alan Griffin (9 ppg/4 rpg), the bench is still a major concern. DMW has a single basket in each game so far - but the rest of the bench remains scoreless.