The Illini are still looking for consistency. Right now, someone could tune into an Illini game for the first time this season, watch five minutes and think this is one of the better teams in the country. Then that same person could watch a different five minute segment of this team and think the Illini are one of the bottom teams in the Big Ten. The Illini have great stretches and really bad stretches. The key to this team's success heading into the Big Ten season will be to limit the huge swings between peaks and valleys and find consistency.
In Saturday's 91-79 winover South Dakota, the Illini (7-5) came out of the gates and played some of their best basketball of the season. It was nice to see that the defense led to offense. Often, this team allows the way its playing on offense to affect their defense. When you watch the Illini, all you have to do is watch their hands and activity on defense to tell if they are locked in and focused. It was apparent to start Saturday's game that the Illini were locked in. The Illini closed out with high hands and did not leave any shooters open for the first five minutes. They were communicating on the defensive end and their rotations were sound. The Illini got steals (four in the first few minutes) and turned them into easy points.
Jalen Coleman-Lands stood out during the first two defensive possessions. On the first possession, he made a couple switches without hesitation, something he struggled with at times this year. On the second possession, he left from the weak side to bluff at an open player, allowing his teammate recover and got back to his man in one smooth motion with textbook fundamentals. JCL had two rebounds, two assists and zero turnovers in the first half along with defensive plays that I just pointed out that don’t show up in the box score. Of course, he also went 3-for-5 from three in the first half and with 11 points as well -- he finished the game with 17 points on 4-for-9 from three. When you do all the other things, your scoring comes easier and you usually shoot a good percentage.
Malcolm Hill was terrific from start to finish. Illinois needs his consistent high level of play. Obviously the 34 points -- on 16 shots -- were great. But the fact the he scored 17 in each half was even better. He got the team going early and carried them late when they needed a big basket. With the lead cut to six with under four minutes to play, the Illini had back-to-back empty possessions. The momentum was with South Dakota. But Hill entered the game and made a huge three to put the nail in the coffin. The Illini would love 34 a game, but if he can continue to be consistent throughout the game, it will allow other players to be more consistent as well.
The good news for the Illini is they started off a game with energy and effort. They were focused on the defensive end, and they made shots. For a team that has not started games off well, opening up 14-0 was a pleasant surprise. Coaches always talk about the first and last five minutes of halves. This is where you set the tone and gain momentum. The Illini were plus-22 in the first and last five minutes of the first half. Great news.
The bad news is the Illini were minus-10 in the other 30 minutes of the game. After holding a team scoreless for the opening five minutes, the Illini gave up 79 points in the final 35 minutes. This is where consistency comes into play. The Illini looked great for a few small stretches and made some great steps in the right direction. If they want to have success in the Big Ten -- and by what we have seen in short stretches they are capable of it -- they have to be more consistent.
Emotions are at an all-time high at the Braggin Rights Game. That task is up next for the Illini as they play Missouri on Wednesday. It will be key for the Illini to not have too many peaks and valleys. The team that plays the most consistent usually wins this game. If the Illini are going to have success -- on Wednesday in the Braggin; Rights Game or during Big Ten play -- they must gain consistency.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.