Piper's points: Illini win battle vs. Yale

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' hard-fought win over Yale on Wednesday night.

The Illini needed their best players to be great, and they didn't disappoint. The junior duo of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill combined for 48 points, including 28 of the team's 36 in the second half, in a 69-65 victory. Nunn raised the bar a notch higher after a career-high 27 points on Saturday, as he totaled 28 points while going 6-of-8 from beyond the arc. The confident lefty has been on a tear since coming back from a torn ligament in his thumb. Nunn is averaging 21 points per game and shooting 45 percent from deep. His confidence and ability to make shots at a high level have been invaluable. Nunn has not been one to lack aggressiveness, but that has been a major criticism of Hill recently. But on Wednesday night, Hill did not hold anything back. He finished with 20 points on 7-of-19 shooting from the field, and he made big plays when the Illini needed it. Hill also posted seven assists and just one turnover, and he had a team-high five rebounds as well. This is their team, and while the unit is still a work in progress, Nunn and Hill give the Illini a fighting chance.

On-ball pressure was key. The scoring surge by Nunn and Hill is what will stand out the most about this game, but Illinois made some winning plays at the other end of the floor as well. The Illini ratcheted up their defensive attack on Wednesday night, as they pressured the ball and forced Yale to make mistakes. The Bulldogs had an astounding 23 turnovers on the night, which ultimately killed nearly one-third of their possessions. This allowed the Illini to push the pace the other way, and they capitalized with 25 points off those turnovers. The Orange and Blue did a great job of suffocating Yale's dribble penetration and utilizing active hands in the passing lanes. Illinois was most effective in the first half, as they forced 15 turnovers and held the Bulldogs to just 25 points on 39.3 percent shooting. John Groce made it a point of emphasis to utilize his bench and keep guys fresh, which enabled the Illini to set the tone with their pressure and get out in transition. There's no question that this team still has defensive deficiencies, but it was good to see them be aggressive and put up a challenge against the dribble drive.

Illini interior was exposed. One of the major areas of weakness on defense is down low. The Illini allowed 32 points in the paint, and talented forward Justin Sears posted 21 points and nine rebounds. Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan are not good defenders, and they do not provide adequate help on the defensive glass either. Wednesday night was a big indicator of how much the Orange and Blue miss a healthy Leron Black, who was sidelined by his lingering knee injury. The Illini also sorely miss Mike Thorne Jr. with his impact in the paint. Without those two, Illinois was dominated on the glass 48-to-25. There is a reason that Yale entered the game top-20 in the country in rebounding margin. It's easy to throw Whiffenpoofs jokes at Brandon Sherrod, but keeping the 6-foot-6, 240-pound forward off the backboards is another story. Sherrod finished with a game-high 14 rebounds - and he was a big part of Yale's more athletic, more physical frontline. This is going to be a recurring issue once the Illini reach Big Ten play.

Freshmen getting more opportunities. Exactly one week after playing just four minutes against Notre Dame, Illini freshman guard Aaron Jordan found his way into the starting lineup on Wednesday night. Jordan did not have a great offensive showing, as he was 1-of-6 from the field in 15 minutes. But Groce has more trust in Jordan with the strides he is making defensively, and he has put more faith into his freshman class in general. Finke found himself in the starting lineup once again, and his 27 minutes were behind only Hill and Nunn. Jalen Coleman-Lands played 17 minutes, although he was scoreless for the second straight game after going 0-of-6 from the field. Even D.J. Williams registered seven minutes, and he scored a hoop and added an assist. Groce said Williams' effort in practice was "off the charts" this week, and he is encouraged by his recent signs of progress. With more trust in his freshmen, Groce is able to utilize a deeper bench and play closer to the fast-paced style that he desires. The big key is consistency as the Illini approach the conference slate. The Orange and Blue need Finke to be a reliable third scoring option, and they must find a way to get Coleman-Lands back on track as well.

Illini still having dangerous lapses. In Springfield, the Illini could not avoid slow starts in the first half. Like clockwork, they found themselves down at halftime before kicking it into high gear as a "second-half team". Now, the Illini have the roles reversed. Just as they did against Notre Dame last Wednesday, Illinois held an eight-point lead going into the locker room against Yale - only to give it up by allowing a big run on the other side. Basketball is a game of runs, and you don't typically associate consistency with a .500 record. But the Illini have to do their best to rid themselves of collapse-worthy stretches. Good teams in the Big Ten will feast on those type opportunities. Illinois has shown only one game (UAB) in which they have played what you'd call a full 40 minutes of good basketball.

Don't be fooled by the name on the jersey. Illini fans may scoff at the thought of beating an Ivy League team at home by just four points. But Yale is a quality team, and they were a challenge for Duke and SMU as well. The Bulldogs were ranked higher in the KenPom rankings than Illinois heading into this one - and it's nice for the Illini to finally have a win against a team that is currently ranked in the KenPom top-100. A win against Yale does not make up for five losses in the nonconference, but the Illini did what they had to do. SMU only beat Yale by two points, and they just trounced Michigan by 24 on Tuesday night. Regardless, the Illini had no need for style points when it came to getting back to .500. Parity runs rampant in college basketball in this day and age. While the Illini snuck away with a win, Wisconsin dropped one at home against UW-Milwaukee. That's not to say that the Illini still don't have a list of concerns with Big Ten play less than three weeks away. But they should move on feeling good that they survived the battle instead of the alternative.


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