Illinois has reason to feel good about the way it’s first few weeks of the season have played out.
The Illini capped a remarkable run through the Maui Invitational with a 78-61 win over Butler in the championship game Wednesday night and they head home unbeaten through six games. Illinois won all three of its games by double digits and won a total of four games in Hawaii when you take into account that it grinded out a 78-77 overtime win against Hawaii last Friday.
Winning four games in six days in a different time zone is not easy for any team. Yet, Illinois responded to the challenge, especially against a Bulldogs team that will contend for the Atlantic-10 championship. It is still early and the grind of the Big Ten season awaits. It’s also worth noting that Illinois started 10-0 a year ago.
“We are excited — we are not done,” Illinois head coach John Groce said in a post-game press conference. “It is an extremely great start for our basketball team, but we have to make sure we do not easy the poisonous pill of success.”
Success is indeed a double-edged sword and the Illini will have to make sure they handle it properly or this stellar start to the season will lose all of its value.
I’m not ready to say Illinois will contend for a Big Ten title, but it will have a chance to at least be in the mix and finish in the top five in the standings. For that to happen, the Illini will need to continue to get after it on defense. It has been huge to their success so far. Opponents are shooting 40.3 percent from the field and only one team has scored more than 70 against Illinois.
Brandon Paul is playing at a high level, looking every bit like the leader that he should be. Paul hung 20 on Butler and has led the team in scoring four times while averaging 19.7 points per game.Paul isn ‘t a one-man show. Three other players are averaging 10 or more points.
The one concern I have about the Illini offense is its love for the 3-point shot. Illinois has drilled 69 treys in six games. There will be nights when the shots don’t fall as easily and the Illini will have to be prepared to find another way to win. It shouldn’t be a problem. Groce has this team focused and playing good basketball.
“These guys will tell you. I focus on practice every day,” Groce said in a post-game press conference. “At least I hope they’ll tell you we come to practice ready to go every day. We try to get better every day and let the results take care of themselves.”
So far, those results have looked pretty good.
Brian Lester is a featured Big Ten columnist and college basketball writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @BLester1993 or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org