Illinois had its full roster of players back for the first time this year when then arrived in Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic. It's no coincidence then that they played their best basketball of the year as well. Other than the obvious statistical numbers, the Illini improved offensively, defensively and in the intangibles with a healthy roster.
With Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black back in the rotation, the Illini are able to play guys back in their normal positions.
The player that benefits the most from this might be Malcolm Hill. The Illini junior wing can play multiple positions but is best when he can play the majority of the game at the 3. That is where he can take advantage of mismatches. He can take a smaller guy on the block, a bigger guy off the dribble and doesn’t have to worry about getting the team organized from the point.The confidence and swagger in his game busted out in Florida, where in two games he had a total of 32 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three turnovers. This is the Malcolm Hill that can carry a team to a victory.
The Illini also become more explosive and can also spread defenses out more on the offensive end.
All season long so far and the start of the UAB game, the Illini bigs saw double teams and pack defenses. UAB was attacking the big as soon he caught the ball in the post. As soon as Black and Nunn entered the game, the double teams on the post slowly disappeared in the UAB game. Iowa State hardly did it at all.
By having more threats on the court, the defense is more spread out and it opened up driving lanes and passing lanes to shooters. The ball moves around the court better and there is more room for cutters to flash into the lane when a defense is spread out.
The Illini gain experience and toughness on the defensive end with a full roster.
Nunn should be able to be a great perimeter defender. He has the wingspan and quick hands to get deflections and steals. teals will lead to run outs and easy points and deflections disrupt offensive rhythm. Nunn also has the ability to go and GET rebounds. Some players just get rebounds when the ball comes to them. Nunn had two or three rebounds in the UAB game that he went and GOT. That is 2-3 extra possessions that the opponent doesn’t get a second chance to score, which might be four to points points per game.
Black gives some strength and rebounding as well. Black still has to be careful to not pick up cheap or unnecessary fouls, but he sets a tone around the rim and teams know they are going to face some contact when they attack the rim on Black.
The Illini have some emotional leaders and energy guys on the court now as well.
The Illini have looked lifeless at times this year. They didn’t have that guy that would pull the guys together in a huddle. They have that now with Tate.
It is natural for the point guard to get the players in a huddle on the court and give instructions. This was unnatural for anybody else to do with Tate out of the rotation.
The Illini didn’t have enough guys on the floor that could give you that explosive play to give the team confidence and get the bench fired up. Nunn gives you those plays. The energy, emotion and bench celebrations were the best its been all year in the two games in Florida. That matters. Enthusiasm is contagious. Never underestimate what a good bench mob does for your team.
The Illini didn’t come home with a championship in Florida, but they are coming home with some confidence and swagger. The hardest part of coaching is when you have to coach energy, effort and confidence. Once a coach doesn’t have to focus on that, they can now focus on the X’s and O’s. The shot selection and missed defensive assignments are a lot easier to correct than finding ways to generate energy and confidence.