Return of Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Leron Black changed the dynamic. Illini fans didn't have a good feeling about this team just a few days ago. There were major questions about their heart, leadership and preparation. Could they guard anyone - just a little bit? Would there be much to play for when they finally got healthy enough? Well, the Orange and Blue faithful got a Black Friday gift when it was announced that Nunn, Tate and Black would all return to action. But even so, it seemed logical to expect just a handful of minutes from Tate and Nunn, while Black could easily do the same with his susceptibility to foul trouble. No one envisioned the trio combining for 33 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and foul steals - but that's exactly what the Illini got in an impressive 72-58 win over UAB. All of a sudden, Illinois was a team that set the tone and attacked at both ends. They had toughness and confidence. They had a versatile scoring punch, and most importantly, they executed with success at the defensive end. It was hard to see the light through the program's first 1-3 start in 50 years and an ugly showing against Chicago State to follow. But Friday night's performance put the spotlight on what this team can be when they can put everyone in uniform.
Illini defense was night and day from recent showings. Easy buckets and open threes were unbecoming traits of this team at the defensive end during their first five games. But things changed when Illinois took the floor against UAB. The Blazers had a difficult time creating offense with the Illini pressuring the ball on the perimeter and executing their rotations with each movement of the ball. The Orange and Blue forced 16 turnovers, including 11 in the first half, which sparked their attack at the other end. They had 18 points off of turnovers, and they won the points in the paint battle 30-18 against a team that was known for their frontcourt strength and penetrating ability. The other major difference was that the Illini didn't get annihilated behind the three-point line. UAB was shooting just 27.1 percent from deep heading into this one, and they were 5-of-23 on the night. It took the Blazers 16-plus minutes to hit their first three. By contrast, it took Chicago State just 11 seconds to hit their first three against the Illini on Monday.
Malcolm Hill filled the stat sheet. The junior forward had a slow start from the field, but that didn't stop him from making a big impact. Hill had five assists, four rebounds and four steals in the first 20 minutes. Hill also bounced back from an 0-of-5 mark in the first half and found his silky smooth stroke. He hit four of his final six shots to finish with 12 points in this contest. When he's on, Hill has one of the best midrange games in college basketball. But he has been most impressive with how he's doing anything and everything to make this team go. John Groce has said that Hill has taken the role as the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. He continues to do it all for the Illini.
This isn't your father's Maverick Morgan. Give credit where credit is due, and Morgan is deserving of quite a bit with how he's played so far this season. His transformation has been very impressive when you consider that many wondered if he'd stick around at Illinois for four years. Morgan didn't look like a Big Ten quality center last year, and there weren't any signs of that changing. But he has proven to be more than serviceable through the first six games. Morgan had 12 points on Friday night, while going 6-of-6 from the field in just eight minutes. He has converted on 67.7 percent of his field goal attempts this season. Illini fans may have feared that it was fool's gold early on, but he sustained that success against a quality opponent. That is a major plus for the Orange and Blue, and a big credit to his late-blooming development.
Illinois needed this win. We are still a long ways away from talking about an NCAA tournament berth with this team. One game isn't going to change that. But Friday was a huge breath of fresh air for a program that needed one. Groce and his staff finally got a look at what they envisioned before a rash of bad breaks. It came at a great time with three NCAA tournament teams lined up in a row, including a clash with No. 4 Iowa State on Saturday. The Illini will likely be outmatched against one of the best teams in the country, but at least they'll have their shot. This win allowed them to build some confidence and feel good about their direction going forward. They've taken their fair share of punches through the first two weeks of the season, but it's still up to them to determine how the story ends.