Piper's points: Rivalry win boosts Illini momentum

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' 68-63 win over Missouri in the Bud Light Braggin' Rights game.

Illini keep the streaks alive. Nearly blowing a 20-point lead in the second half against a subpar Missouri squad doesn't like a reason to brag. But the Illini have reason to feel good after winning their third straight Braggin' Rights game, and their fifth game in a row to close out nonconference play. It would have looked better if the Orange and Blue sent the sparse Missouri crowd home early, but you'll take a rivalry win anytime you can get one. This particular series prefers to keep it close anyway, as four of the last five games have been decided by five points or less. The victors also come in streaks. Illinois won nine in a row from 2000-08. Then, Mizzou reeled off four in a row. Now, Illinois is back in control - and that's not something that is taken lightly in Illini nation.

This team deserves some positive vibes. To say the last five months have been challenging for the Illinois basketball program would be a ridiculous understatement. The Illini have been battered by bad luck in the form of injuries - to the extent of unseen proportions. They have gone through struggles and played undesirable basketball. All the while, frustration and negativity spread across the fan base like a wildfire. Beating Missouri and moving to 8-5 isn't going to instantly hush the groans some places or reverse the apathy in others. But the Illini deserved that moment of celebration on Wednesday night, as John Groce showed off his "dab" in the locker room and Malcolm Hill cracked a smile at the press conference. Illinois got the job done over the last five games, and they're making some improvements. Momentum and confidence can go a long way, and that's what the Illini will have when they open up Big Ten play against Michigan next week. It will also make for a happy holiday break in the meantime.

"Big Three" gets it done. The Illini have two really good players - All-Big Ten caliber players - in Kendrick Nunn and Hill. Different personalities, different skill sets but they work fabulously in unison. That being said, the Illini have needed someone to be a reliable third option. It looks like they've found it in redshirt freshman Michael Finke. All three stepped up in a big way, as Hill (21), Nunn (19) and Finke (16) combined for 56 of Illinois' 68 points. The trio had 25 of the team's 27 points in the second half, and each one made key plays down the stretch. Hill ended Illinois' nine-plus minute scoring drought with a layup, and then he followed it up with a huge step-back three. Finke also made a big three from the corner down the stretch. Later on, Nunn iced the game away at the free throw line.

Nunn and Hill about as good as it gets. The Big Ten is stockpiled with talent year in and year out, but you may not find a more productive duo in the conference this season than the one in Champaign. After Wednesday's game, Hill is now the leading scorer in the Big Ten with 18.7 points per game. Nunn isn't included on the list because of the sample size, but if he was, he'd be tied for second in the league with Denzel Valentine at 18.5 points per game. Since Nunn made his season debut against UAB, he and Hill have averaged more than 38 points per game combined. Groce has held his star juniors to a high standard, and they have things clicking right now. It will be on them to keep it rolling during Big Ten play, but the Illini know they'll have a shot whenever these two are on the floor.

Finke doesn't feel like a freshman. That's what the 6-foot-10 big man said after posting his third straight outing in double figures. Groce added that it's Finke's mindset and maturity that allows him to remain composed and make plays - instead of experiencing some typical freshman struggles. Missouri head coach Kim Anderson said Finke was an unavoidable mismatch. Whatever it is, the Illini have themselves a promising young player. But the future can wait. This team needs Finke to keep producing so they can be a full-fledged threat on offense. It may not be a coincidence that Finke was on the bench for nearly six minutes of Illinois' scoring drought in the second half.

Illini have to learn how to close. This team has struggled with putting teams away during the last few games. For the second time in a row, the Illini had their opponent down by 20 in the second half and they allowed them to get within at least six. The game prior to that, Illinois held a 10-point lead in the second half only to give it up to lowly UIC. That is a dangerous trend heading into Big Ten play. Granted, there's a good chance the Illini won't be up by 20 points the rest of the season - although Rutgers might have something to say about that. But the point remains the same. This team has enough talent to have some late leads against Big Ten opponents. But closing in crunch time doesn't happen on its own.

Next 18 games could say a lot. With potentially three projected starters out the rest of the season, Groce probably won't have to do too much explaining if the Illini fall reasonably short of the NCAA tournament. But this team isn't focused on making excuses. Groce loves the character and perseverance of this group, and they still have talented pieces to compete in a wide open midsection of the Big Ten. Unfortunately, the Illini will need to be better than just middle of the pack to prevent a third straight absence from the dance. They likely will not have a nonconference win that looks great on paper come March. But ultimately, it's all about competing and progressing throughout the rest of the schedule - and things will take care of themselves. Perception will be highly important, especially when it comes to locking up commitments in the 2017 class. KenPom currently has Illinois projected to go 7-11 in conference play. A .500 split would be around what a healthy Illini squad was projected to accomplish, and anything better than that would have to be considered noteworthy coaching job.


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