Illini senior point guard Jaylon Tate has a stronghold on the starting one-spot right now. Read that again. Yes, the offensively-limited veteran -- who was supposed to be stashed away on the bench behind Tracy Abrams and Te'Jon Lucas -- has been Illinois' best player at the position over the four-game sample size to begin the season.
Tate had a career-high 12 points to go with six assists and two steals in 28 minutes on Friday night in Illinois' 89-69 win vs. Detroit. In those 28 minutes he was on the court, Illinois was +28 -- the best plus/minus mark of anyone on the team. In fact, he was the best tally of any Illini player in the four games combined, as he sits at +99 already.
Illini head coach John Groce raved about Tate's command of the game in Friday night's presser. That command was easy to see, even for those who were stomping their feet when Tate's minutes were in the high 20s to start the season. On Friday, you could hear fans yelling out his name in praise. Tate is playing with great feel and pace, and his confidence only continues to grow.
Don't overbuy Tate's stock for the long haul just yet. He'll have to show up against some real competition, and some bigger backcourts will probably number Illinois' days of starting two point guards. Don't hold your breath on his jump shot either. But Tate has been a consistent performer thus far in his role, and that has earned him quite a bit of trust from the coaching staff.
Abrams strokin' it
Detroit head coach Bacari Alexander yelled out "shooter" to his defense in reference to Abrams. Yes, that's the same player who shot 33 percent from the field and 27 percent from deep in his last full season. Not exactly 'shooter' material.
But Abram's offensive abilities have transformed in the two and a half years between the end of his junior year. While he was out with season-ending injuries with a torn ACL and then a torn Achilles, Abrams couldn't do much on the court during rehab -- except shoot. And boy, is he shooting it right now.
Abrams buried a pair of triples on Friday night as part of his season-high 15 points. He is 9-of-11 from deep on the season. Yes, almost 82 percent from three.
Let's state the obvious: There's no way he keeps that up. And he probably won't even be around Jalen Coleman-Lands' 42.2 percent from three last year that broke the program's freshman record. But it can be said that Abrams is a point guard that is a legitimate threat to hit outside shots, especially when you leave him open. That is sweet beauty to the eyes of Illini fans.
Adding that dynamic to the offense only makes Illinois more dangerous. Abrams has put in a ton of work to get his stroke right. And he's seeing the fruits of that effort.
Complete performance by Hill
Malcolm Hill is the best player that's stepped on the floor at the State Farm Center this season, and it's not even really close. The good news for Illini fans is that he's playing like it -- after lacking some assertiveness in the exhibition games and even in the opener.
Hill has already had a 40-point outing against Northern Kentucky, which also included 12 boards. He was dominant, and efficient in doing so (13-of-23 from the field). But as crazy as it sounds, Friday night was probably his most complete performance.
The Big Ten Player of the Year candidate posted a game-high 25 points on just 11 shots. He hit four threes. He grabbed six rebounds, including four in the first five minutes. And probably the biggest difference in comparison to his other outings is that Hill was locked in defensively. He had a pair of steals, and it was obvious that he was engaged at that end of the floor and put in the necessary effort to get stops.
He's done okay for himself to start the year. He's third in the Big Ten with 22.3 points per game, and he's done it by shooting 50 percent from the field and 46 percent from three. Hill is also second on the team with 7.5 rebounds per game.
And the way he's shooting the rock from the outside -- if relatively sustainable -- raises that possibility for a shot at 'the big-time' after this year.
Post defense was awful
That was Groce's assessment after Friday's game, and he hit the nail on the head. Against a smaller and sub-par frontcourt, Illinois interior defense was exploited. Maverick Morgan, Michael Finke and Mike Thorne Jr. gave up buckets at ease.
Finke was moved off his position on back-downs, and he has a hard time keeping drives in front of him. Morgan and Thorne simply don't move very well, they lack athleticism and they give up hoops. The trio also fouled at a high frequency when the ball got in the lane. They combined for 12 fouls, and Morgan fouled out.
The guards have to do their best to keep drivers on the perimeter, and they can do better in that area. But they're going to get beat at times, especially against better competition. And the pick 'n roll can really hurt the Illini by putting immediate stress on the bigs to move and recover. There's no Nnanna Egwu on this roster, or even a big that can defend half as well as him.
Defending the paint isn't always easy. But the most concerning part about Friday night is that Detroit threw it down to their smaller bigs and got almost whatever they wanted. That can't happen.
Going to get A LOT tougher
The feel-good, cupcake games are over for a while. The Illini slaughtered a D-II team and beat three low-level D-I teams by double digits -- and not all of those were cake walks. The KenPom rankings shows what Illinois has faced: SEMO (No. 304), Northern Kentucky (No. 289), McKendree (NR) and Detroit (No. 268).
What's next? Winthrop (2-1) will come to town for a battle on Monday. The Eagles won 23 games last season, and they can play some ball this year as well. They will be a big challenge for Illinois' defense. Winthrop competed on Friday night with a Florida State squad that has a ton of fire power -- losing 100-86. And that was without their best player: Keon Johnson.
The senior point guard sat out with a foot injury on Friday, but Illinois is expecting him to be ready for them on Monday. Johnson is a bucket-getter, who averaged 18.7 points per game last year and shot 39.4 percent from three. Winthrop could give Illinois problems. The Illini will be glad that they have to travel from Florida on a short turn-around.
After that game, it gets even more real for this team. West Virginia is going to be a heck of a Thanksgiving test with their pressure defense, pace and athleticism. The Mountaineers are currently No. 25 in the KenPom rankings -- slotted higher than anyone on Illinois' nonconference slate. If the Illini win that, they'll most likely get a crack at the talented Seminoles (No. 37). Then, they have N.C. State (No. 46) and VCU (No. 35). That's all in a span of 10 days and only one game is on their home floor.
We're going to find out what's real with the Illini real quick.