Five takeaways from Illini vs. Northern Kentucky

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' 79-64 win vs. Northern Kentucky on Sunday.

Malcolm Hill starts B1G POY campaign

Illini senior Malcolm Hill was flat out dominant in the second half of Illinois' 79-64 win against Northern Kentucky on Sunday -- scoring a career-high 40 points with 29 coming in the final 20 minutes. And the Illini couldn't really afford him to be anything less after trailing at halftime.

Hill came out of the locker room and hit two threes in the first three minutes of the second half. He hit five threes on the game, which is a testament to the work he put in his outside shot during the offseason. His mid-range game is already absolutely filthy, and he showed that on his final bucket with a pull-up in the lane. Hill also attacked off the dribble and got to the free-throw line.

That is the kind of aggressiveness you want to see from your senior leader. When you're that good, go win the game. That's what Hill was determined to do. He had a ho-hum 21-point outing in the opener. The two performances combined got him named Co-Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday, along with Indiana's James Blackmon (26 points in a win vs. Kansas on Friday).

Scoring 40 against Northern Kentucky probably won't be remembered all that much at the end of the season. And from Illinois' perspective, it's not a great thing that Hill had to do that. But there will be big games when Hill has to take over, and he is more than capable.

His numbers will fit the bill. If Hill can carry the Illini to a top-half finish in the Big Ten and an NCAA tournament bid, he'll have as good of a shot as any for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Jaylon Tate deserves some props

Illini fans have made it clear that they want to see freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas. They've seen plenty of Jaylon Tate, who hasn't exactly quenched their thirst over the last few seasons -- especially offensively.

But Tate deserves credit for how he played on Sunday, as Groce gave him a go in the starting lineup. The senior point guard had nine points, three assists and two turnovers in 29 minutes. Those numbers don't jump out at you, but Tate was clearly the best Illinois point guard on the day. In fact, the Illini were +23 when he was on the court -- which was the best of any player.

Tracy Abrams had five points and two assists in 26 minutes. Lucas had no stats in three minutes.

Like it or not, Tate played well against Northern Kentucky. He made some plays off the dribble. He played with good pace and feel. And he's going to continue to play.

Illini missing Leron Black

John Groce and his staff have to be missing Leron Black right now. The Illini were out-rebounded 43-to-32 on Sunday. Against a team who's tallest player is 6-foot-7. They also gave up eight offensive boards in the first half, which let them get back more than 44 percent of their misses.

Black has consistently been Illinois' best rebounder in practice. The James Augustine No. 40 practice jersey is his title belt. Even Michael Finke, who had his first career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, gave Black credit after Sunday's game for making him better on the glass by competing with him in practice.

Illinois' need for Black's return goes beyond rebounding too. Black brings a level of energy and toughness that the Illini have lacked out of the gate in their first two games. He's also a better defender than Finke at the four. There have been numerous occasions when Finke has gotten beat off the dribble. He's gotten beat on the interior a few times too. Black's mobility and strength are much-needed in those areas.

Concerns on defense not going away

The spotlight of concern still shines bright on Illinois' defense. They were awful in that area in the first half, as they gave up dribble-drives and open threes. The Illini had better numbers in the second half, although Northern Kentucky hit six threes in that half.

Overall, fixes have to be made and in a hurry. Illinois is a week and a half away from seeing West Virginia. That's a team with some real firepower, especially on the perimeter.

Giving up threes and open lanes to the basket is no way to win basketball games. Illinois was atrocious in those areas last season. They haven't looked a ton better so far through two games -- even with enough healthy bodies.

Slow starts will burn you

The Illini trialed for 12 of the first 20 minutes to start the season against SEMO. They found themselves down at halftime on Sunday.

Shots not going in is one thing. But John Groce said he felt his team was "soft" in the first half. He didn't like his team's drive and disposition.

Effort, heart, toughness and focus should be nonnegotiable on a nightly basis. Especially for a team filled with veterans, who are on their last go-around. Especially for a team that thinks they can be great.

Illinois had problems with slow starts to begin last season. Groce said on Monday he wasn't ready to worry about the past two games as a trend. But that needs to change.

There has been a big enough talent gap for the Illini to rebound from slow starts and come back to win by double digits in the last two. That gap isn't going to be there soon enough. Developing winning habits is important, and coming out lethargic and soft will get you kicked in the teeth down the road.


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