Illini fans got a glimpse of what lies ahead for redshirt freshman Michael Finke. The Champaign native lit the nets on fire with a career-high 24 points and four three-pointers on Saturday, while going 9-of-13 from the field. Finke hasn't wasted any time showing his ability to score. His skill, length and smooth stroke make him a tough guard for opposing defenses. It all clicked against Western Carolina, as he played with a high level of confidence and aggressiveness. Finke is shooting 57.4 percent from the field so far this season, and his offensive rating is top-50 in the country - according to Ken Pom. The key going forward is for the 6-foot-10 big man to improve on the glass and at the defensive end. Finke took a step forward on Saturday with a team-high six rebounds. But his scoring is what stole the show, and the Illini need a solidified third scoring option to go along with Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Finke's 24-point outing was the highest scoring total for an Illini freshman since Demetri McCamey during the 2007-08 season. Orange and Blue fans have suffered through a sub-.500 start, but they can't help but smile when thinking about what Finke can become in the coming seasons.
Nunn continues to let it fly. The junior guard has not been shy with his shot since returning to action, and his game was on point against Western Carolina. Nunn set a new career-high with 27 points by going 9-of-14 from the field. He has been a workhorse for John Groce during the last four games, as he has played 140 of the possible 160 minutes and scored more than a fourth of his team's points. Groce wants to see more defensively from Nunn, which is why he was left out of the starting lineup on Saturday. Groce noted that the lineup was based on defensive grade-outs from Wednesday night against Notre Dame. But he couldn't keep Nunn off the floor for any longer than 72 seconds into the game. It took just 16 seconds after that for Nunn to splash a three. The confident lefty simply goes out there and makes plays. Nunn is extremely valuable to this team by bringing toughness, swagger and instant offense.
Hill has been far too casual. The Illini have asked their star player to do so much through the first nine games. If you take a look at the stats, Hill has largely answered the call. He leads the team in points, assists and steals, and he is second in rebounding. Hill has also played the most minutes (318) of anyone on the roster, and it's not even close. But even through all of that, Hill has left more to be desired recently. He lacked aggressiveness in big moments against Iowa State and Notre Dame, which was seemingly unacceptable for a player of his caliber. Groce defended Hill's decision-making and assertiveness in the post-game on Wednesday, but he was bothered by Hill's showing in the first half on Saturday. The junior forward found himself on the bench for the first seven-plus minutes out of halftime, until Western Carolina tied it at 50. Hill finished with 10 points and five rebounds in 27 minutes, but it was obvious that Groce felt he didn't bring the necessary effort and intensity until later in the second half. Hill is laid back by nature, but his "go with the flow" mentality has been concerning, especially as a leader and go-to guy in crunch time.
Jordan earns Groce's trust. After playing just four minutes against Notre Dame on Wednesday, it was obvious Aaron Jordan needed to show more to his head coach to earn valuable tick. On Saturday, Jordan took advantage of an opportunity to do just that. The freshman guard was a crucial contributor with eight points and two steals in 17 minutes. Groce said Jordan was huge for the Illini, and he was particularly impressed with the progress he showed at the defensive end. Groce also raved about Jordan's positive attitude and extra effort in the film room leading up to Saturday. The Illini need their young guys to grow up in a hurry, and this was a big step for Jordan. It's no secret that he gives the Orange and Blue far more offensive capability than Alex Austin on the wing. But Groce has established that defense is the key to seeing the floor, and the hope is that Jordan can use Saturday as a baseline for consistency.
Illini have a lot of work to do. Being tied with Western Carolina at the 7:58 mark in the second half is far from impressive. But to be fair, a 3-5 team is not typically looking for style points. Fortunately, the Illini closed the deal with a 21-9 run to finish the game. There are positives to take from that stretch, as the Orange and Blue upped the intensity on defense and found ways to get stops. But as a whole, the defense is still a big issue. The Illini allowed Western Carolina to shoot 45.8 percent from three on the game, and 7-of-12 in the second half. The Catamounts were shooting 29.5 percent from deep entering Saturday. Illinois has a knack for making bad shooting teams look good, as was the case against Chicago State as well. On the season, the Illini are allowing opponents to shoot 38.7 percent from long range - which puts them at 308th in the country in three-point field goal defense. They're also allowing more than 75 points per game. The schedule remains favorable, but the Illini have to be better just to stay at five losses throughout nonconference play.