Illinois remains perfect after imperfect first half vs. Brown

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CHAMPAIGN — Look, no one ever said turning from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight into an offensive juggernaut was going to be easy.

Throughout the first half on a quiet evening inside the State Farm Center, with students on break and a less-than-extraordinary opponent in Brown University, Illinois clanged and clanked like it was 2013. By the time the Illini slinked off the court for the intermission, they were trailing 35-31 and shooting 11-for-36 (30.6 percent) from the field.

It was a familiar look to anyone who watched the Illini a season ago, when they were the Big Ten’s second-worst offensive team. But it was new for a squad that, through three contests this season, ranked second in the nation in scoring at 100.3 points per game and was shooting blistering percentages on twos, threes and free throws.

But as coach John Groce said after it was over, this one was a “tale of two halves.”

As Illinois — 4-0 after an 89-68 victory — continues to remake itself from a defensive team that tried to limit possessions into a go-go group that sprints up and down the floor and lets fly with the first quality shot it sees, there will be some more uneven shooting performances. Perhaps none, though, so drastic as this meeting with the overmatched Bears (1-4).

The Illini ripped the lip off the rim as soon as the second half started and buried it somewhere no one would find it. They scored 58 points and shot 73.1 percent from the field. They drove from all points on the perimeter and sank 16 of 19 from the foul line.

More important to Groce, they clamped down defensively, using their depth to wear down and overwhelm Brown. For 20 minutes, they played the way he wants them to play all the time. But, hey, it’s November.

“We’re striving for perfection,” said Groce, “knowing full well that we’re not going to get it. If you do that, then you get excellence. You get greatness.”

Transfer guard Aaron Cosby continued to show outstanding early returns in Groce’s system. A rugged defender and screener, Cosby is bringing more urgency to his own offense than he ever did in two seasons at Seton Hall.

It might sound like a simple thing, but Cosby — and fellow transfer Ahmad Starks — is reminded daily to load up his legs for a jump shot before he receives the pass. The team’s early leader in three-point shots made, Cosby drilled three more of them Monday and led the Illini with 18 points.

Cosby also accomplished a real rarity, scoring seven points — on a three-pointer, two technical foul shots and a layup — in two trips early in the second half.

“That was the first time for me,” he said. “I think that started on the defensive end.”

The Illini got 15 points and 10 rebounds from Rayvonte Rice. Brown’s Steven Spieth — brother of PGA Tour star Jordan Spieth — led all scorers with 21.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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