The heart and grit of the Illini were put to the test. After a disappointing loss to start the season, John Groce's squad found themselves down by as many as 14 points in the first half against North Dakota State on Sunday. More long-range bombs continued to fall for the opposition, as the Bison hit 7-of-13 from deep and 51.6 percent of their field goals during the first 20 minutes. When the Illini went into the locker room down 39-28 at halftime, it was apparent that Groce was about to learn quite a bit about the makeup of his team. They decided to fight in the second half, as North Dakota State head coach David Richman said Illinois played like a team that had their backs against the wall. The Illini dug deep during a crucial stretch following the 10-minute mark in the second frame. They went on a 20-5 run to give themselves a 64-59 lead with less than five minutes to go, and they held on tight during the home stretch for a much-needed victory.
Mike Thorne and Maverick Morgan feasted down low. The Illini big men came up huge on Sunday, as they combined for 31 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes of action. Thorne led all scorers with 21 points, and he also posted a game-high eight boards. The Illinois staff knew they were getting a center who could eat up space and be an offensive threat around the basket. But they probably didn't have this in mind. Thorne has totaled 20-plus points in two straight games, which is the first time an Illini center has done that since Meyers Leonard in Feb. 2012. With his size and skilled moves in the paint, Thorne is a game-changer at the offensive end. Morgan was a huge contributor as well with 10 points and five rebounds. He has been ultra-efficient at the offensive end to start the season with 17 points on 10 shot attempts. The smaller frontcourts of North Florida and North Dakota State have played a factor, but Morgan's confidence and production on the block have been impressive and unexpected.
Jalen Coleman-Lands provided a big spark. The sharpshooting freshman was abruptly introduced to high-level college basketball on Friday, as he played just 14 minutes and tallied as many fouls (five) as points. It was a baptism by fire for Coleman-Lands, who was only able to practice for a little more than a week leading up to that game. He accepted the learning lesson and came ready to play on Sunday. Coleman-Lands was instrumental during the comeback in the second half. After scoring just three points in the first 20 minutes, he finished with 15 points, four steals and two assists. Coleman-Lands created steals on back-to-back possessions during Illinois' second half run. The second one led to a jumper by Malcolm Hill, which tied the game at 57. With his ability to shoot from the outside and make plays in other areas, Coleman-Lands has the potential to be special down the road.
Hill overcame rough start. There's no question that Illinois' best player has yet to be at his best this season. Even during a double-double performance against North Florida, Hill was not in a groove offensively for most of the game. On Sunday, Hill struggled to get going once again. The junior forward was just 1-of-8 from the field in the first half against North Dakota State, and he's shot 4-of-18 combined in the first 20 minutes of both games. That has been tough for the Illini to overcome, although Hill did step up and make plays down the stretch. He finished with 13 points, five assists and four rebounds. Groce said after the game that he is concerned that he's asking Hill to do too much, although he doesn't have much choice otherwise with starting point guard Jaylon Tate sidelined. Hill had to spell Khalid Lewis at the one, and he had some mixed results. To this point, we haven't seen the All-Big Ten version of Hill but it should only be a matter of time.
Leron Black's return was crucial. When you look at the stat sheet, Black's five points and five rebounds are modest numbers off the bench. But the Illini will certainly take it. Black brings energy and toughness when he's out on the floor, and Illinois can use as much of that as they can get. Even though he was unable to play on Friday, Black's progression has been encouraging. He was originally thought to return around Thanksgiving, but instead, he has a game under his belt and will be ready to go in a big one at Providence on Wednesday.
Alex Austin proves to be an asset. The transfer wing from Eastern Illinois has shown his value during the first two games, as Groce has been unable to keep him on the bench. Austin has been Illinois' best defender on the wing, and his presence has been crucial given the team's defensive deficiencies. Austin was in the starting lineup on Sunday, and he's likely earned another start against Providence on Wednesday. The Illini were +20 when Austin was in the game during his 25 minutes of action. That is a tribute to his effort and awareness at the defensive end.
Did the Illini turn a corner defensively? After allowing North Dakota State to hit seven threes in the first half and make plays off the bounce with relative ease, the Illini defense came alive in the second half. The Bison shot just 36.7 percent during the final 20 minutes, and they turned it over 10 times during that stretch. Richman did not do anything differently from a strategy standpoint in the second half. The difference was Illinois' intensity and will to get the job done at that end. They came out of the locker room in the second half with a fire that hadn't been seen through the first 60 minutes of the season. The mental mistakes of the previous halves need to be cleaned up. But most importantly going forward, they need to maintain that attitude they had in the second half. Providence is going to pose a big problem for the Illini with point guard Kris Dunn, who is a projected lottery pick. For three of the four halves, Illinois has been horrid at stopping the ball on the dribble drive and closing the gap on outside shooters.