Illinois 85, Michigan 69
Within a minute of the freshmen checking in with the first wave of Illinois substitutions, Lucas and Nichols each scored a field goal: Lucas on a bank-in three-pointer at the end of the shot clock and Nichols on a layup off a great pass from Jalen Coleman-Lands.
And the contributions didn't stop there. The Illini Class of 2016 added much-needed play making and energy to the Illini (12-5, 2-2 Big Ten) in a crucial home victory over Michigan (11-6, 1-3 Big Ten) on Wednesday at State Farm Center.
Nichols scored a career-high 13 points and pulled down a career-high eight rebounds (five offensive) in a career-high 19 minutes, while Lucas (five points) dished a career-high eight assists (to one turnover) in a career-high 23 minutes.
Illinois shot a season-high 64.2 percent from the field, including 9 of 14 from three, and assisted on 21 of 34 field goals. The 16-point margin was the Illini's largest over a power-five opponent team this season. Illinois also out-rebounded Michigan 30-17.
Maverick Morgan -- making a start over Mike Thorne Jr., who had started at center the previous 10 games -- led the Ilini with 16 points, while Malcolm Hill (6-for-7 free throw) added 15. Coleman-Lands (12 points) shot 4-for-5 from three and dished four assists, while Leron Black (5-10 FG) and Michael Finke (4-4 FG) also added 10 points each.
The tandem of Lucas and Nichols sent the hungry crowd into a frenzy on a mid-first half connection. Lucas broke down a defender and whipped a pass to Nichols, who swished a three to give Illinois a 32-27 lead and end a 7-0 run.
Michigan answered with an 8-0 run to take the lead back, but Illinois responded by ending the half on a 17-2 run, highlighted by two Coleman-Lands' threes. The Illini never lost the lead, which they held for 32:37 of the game.
Thorne Jr. and Jaylon Tate -- rotation stalwarts through the first 16 games -- did not register a minute of playing time, the first time in either's Illinois career that he did not play due to coach's decision.
Groce is now 2-7 against Michigan coach John Beilein.
What it means
Synchronization achieved. Groce seemed to finally find the right combination of players and finally pushed the right buttons. The offense flowed better than it has all season against a power-five opponent. Illinois had more bounce and energy than it had all season. The crowd enjoyed Illinois basketball more than it has all season. This is the team's ceiling, and it's exciting in a muddled Big Ten. But can they repeat it -- again and again and again? The jury's out, but the Illini not only got a win they needed but provide some real intrigue for what the rest of the season could hold for a new-look team.
What went right
Lucas is a much-needed playmaker. While he can look rushed at times (kind of a freshman thing), he gives Illini much more of a threat on offense than senior point guard Jaylon Tate. Like Tate, he's a great distributor, but he has a quicker first step and can score off the dribble or from beyond the arc. He looked more comfortable and reliable on defense too. He'll make mistakes but his his upside is so much higher than Tate's. Groce has made the switch -- finally.
Nichols adds much-needed energy and athleticism. Williams showed flashes but never found consistency. Nichols has brought what Williams was supposed to bring: energy, defense, toughness and bounce. Nichols added strength and physicality on defense -- where he was able to stay in front of dribble-drivers -- and added another presence on the glass. He had two putbacks, including one where he rebounded and scored a putback without hitting the ground. When's the last time an Illinois played did that?
Coleman-Lands was a playmaker, not only as a shooter but a distributor. His game is evolving from just a stand-still shooter. He attacked off the dribble, and while he continues to struggle to finish at the rim, he created for others. He, Lucas and Hill can all be dynamic players off the ball screen.
Morgan continues to assert himself as one of the most skilled and effective offensive post players in the Big Ten. That nonconference dip in production seems a distant memory. The senior center again is confident and aggressive. He's dangerous when he has those two traits.
Hill quietly scored 15 points and did what he does: get to the foul line.
What went wrong
The Illini defense continues to be an issue, especially dribble-drive defense. Michigan found little impediment to the rim.
Tracy Abrams continues to struggle. The senior point guard has hit a bit of a wall and doesn't seem to have his legs underneath him. If this were the NBA, a veteran's day off may be in order. But expectations maybe should be tempered the rest of the season. Abrams looked like this team's second best player during the nonconference. He may be a role player now, but a much-needed one who can provide a steadying leadership presence.
The Williams news wasn't a positive and a possible distraction. But the sophomore, which this site dubbed "Flash" due to his rare sparks of brilliance, has been a bottom-four player in the rotation and hasn't yet shown the consistency yet that forecasted a meaningful long-term impact.
Illinois hosts Maryland for a 5 p.m. Saturday tipoff on ESPN2. The Terps (15-2, 3-1) -- which won at Michigan last week and at home against Indiana -- are a bit of a surprising Big Ten contender considering how much talent they lost last season and their youth. But Mark Turgeon's squad is very talented with All-Big Ten junior point guard Melo Trimble (17.6 points) again leading the way. A trio of freshmen are producing at a high level: point guard Anthony Cowan (10.6 points), forward Justin Jackson (10.8 points) and forward Kevin Huerter (8.2 points). The Terps smoked Illinois 84-59 in the Big Ten opener, and they didn't have post player DaMonte Dodd (6.8 points, 5.1 rebounds), who has 21 points and 14 rebounds in his three games since returning from injury.