Illinois Basketball: 3 Observations From the SEMO Victory

Illinois Basketball

Nov 11, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Malcolm Hill (21) and center Mike Thorne Jr. (33) and guard Tracy Abrams (13) and guard Aaron Jordan (23) and guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (5) await the end of a timeout during the first half against the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois basketball team started the season with a victory over Southeast Missouri State 81-62.

This was a good win and it showed Illini nation what this team could do on the basketball court with a fully healthy squad.

Here are three things I noticed from the win against the Redhawks.

Off-Season Workouts Paid Off

Throughout this past off-season, there were pictures posted about the progress the Illinois basketball team had made.

This progress showed us the team was working on getting bigger, faster and stronger.  This has really paid off and you can tell.

Michael Finke is the first example of this great training paying off.

I was gushing over Finke last season to start the year because he was a big man that could shoot the three.  Quickly I found out his deficiencies at the defensive end and rebounding.

This has changed with the off-season workouts, though.  Finke was clearly a bigger physical specimen that could go up and get a board.

Finke averaged 3.7 rebounds per game last season and in the game against Southeast Missouri State he pulled down 7 rebounds.

Another area that has been improved thanks to the off-season workouts is the speed of the team.

Everyone seemed quicker than they were last season.  This helped tremendously getting to the basket and with ball movement.

I really noticed the speed in Maverick Morgan, DJ Williams and Jaylon Tate.  All three of these players improved their games because they were quicker on the court.

It might be a bit of an overreaction, but to win on the court you have to win in the off-season.  That is exactly what the Illini have done.

Illinois Basketball

Mar 1, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Tracy Abrams (13) drives to the basket against Michigan State Spartans guard Keith Appling (11) and guard Denzel Valentine (45) during the 2nd half of a game at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Illinois won 53-46. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Abrams was Dearly Missed

I have preached for the last year or so that this basketball team would be so much better once point guard Tracy Abrams was healthy and back on the court.

The point guard position is the most important on the floor.  This is the quarterback of the basketball world.

Getting Abrams backed proved to be exactly what the Illini needed last night.  They looked like a well-oiled machine on offense and the ball movement was spectacular.

Abrams finished the night with 13 points and only 3 assists, but I don’t necessarily judge a point guard off the number of assists.

Point guards help facilitate the ball and on almost every play the ball went through Abrams and he was making the decisions.

Having Abrams as the starter also enabled Jaylon Tate to go back to the role he should be playing, which is a backup point guard.

I have been hard on Tate over the last two seasons because he isn’t a starting-caliber point guard in the Big Ten.

But, Tate is now back into the second rotation role and this is by far better suited for his skill set.  He can slash at times and play defense, but he can’t shoot.

It is amazing how well this offense flowed with a great point guard leading the way.  This season is looking to be pretty special.

Mar 11, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan (22) is guarded by Purdue Boilermakers center A.J. Hammons (20) and forward Caleb Swanigan (50) during the Big Ten Conference tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Most Improved

I can’t finish this write-up without giving love to clearly the most improved player on the court so far.

Center Maverick Morgan was not good to start last season.  He couldn’t get a rebound and the only thing he had going for him was some offensive touch.

Toward the end of the campaign last year, Morgan started to really get into a grove and was developing nicely.  He then parlayed that into the great off-season workout program.

Morgan emerged from the off-season a new man and he showed why he belongs as potentially the starting center moving forward.

At the end of the game, Morgan finished with 16 points, 2 blocks and 3 rebounds.  He did all of this while shooting a perfect 8-of-8 from the field.

Morgan was a bigger, faster and stronger version of what we saw last season.  He had great moves around the rim, but would also step up from 10 to 15 feet and nail a jump shot.

I was also impressed with his physical prowess around the rim on both ends of the court.  He was a beast all around and I can’t wait to see how he continues to develop the rest of the season.

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