Well I have been a bit lazy in covering the Fighting Illini in basketball, but, better late than never.
Over the weekend I watched the Fighting Illini play the Wisconsin Badgers at a full Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The Illini started out strong, but were out muscled, out paced and frankly out worked by the Badgers. The Illini lost their 12th consecutive game to Wisconsin and 7th consecutive game overall, 75-50. And trust me when I say, that was a sloppy game.
Illinois led briefly, 4-2, and then led 6-5 with 16 minutes to go in the first half, and never could get within 1 point of the Badgers.
Then Monday night, the Illini played #6 Michigan State at home. Although it was a sloppy game for the Spartans, they won 87-74, giving the Illini their 6th consecutive loss and 8 loss in the B1G.
Illinois didn’t really have an offense on Friday night. 3 star players were held scoreless, Mark Smith went 0-5, Kipper Nichols went 0-3 and Aaron Jordan went 0-1. The three guards are 4/5/6 in scoring for the Illini, and Nichols and Jordan are 2 of the best 3 points shooters on the team. The Illini were cold from the floor, shooting an atrocious 1/14 from beyond the arc and an even worse 3/7 from the line. Last night against Michigan State, Illinois really needed to pick up its offense. Against a tough Spartan defense, the Illini shot, 8/28 from beyond the arc and and 10-14 from the field. The offense looked better and kept it close until midway through the 2nd half, led by a 27 point night from Kipper Nichols. But sloppy mistakes cost the Illini in the second half.
There are two teams the Illini put out. One that falls flat and the other, keeps things close. For the Illini to improve on the last 10 games of the season, they need to have a more consistent offense. Illinois currently ranks in the bottom half in 3PT%, FT%, FG%, TOV and Assists. This needs to improve for the Illini to win games. Last year’s Illinois Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith, needs to get hot again, more now than ever. In the last 6 games, Smith has averaged 3 points a game, scoring less than 5 points 6 times and scoreless 1 time on 9/30 shooting. Lastly, the Illini need to pass the ball better. Their shaky offense was exposed against Wisconsin. In the second half, the Illini had 1 assist and 18 points.
The Illini play a trapping 1-3-1 zone defense, that the Illini are neither quick or strong enough to keep up with other players. This was very evident in the game on Friday night. Underwood had decided to double team Badger forward Ethan Happ, but that didn’t really help. Happ still had 16 points on 6-9 shooting, while the Badgers were able to move the ball easily around the perimeters, shifting the Illini defense until a good shot was found, or the spy placed in the short corner was left uncovered. Same mistakes happened against the Spartans last night. Every time a a player would drive, the Illini would close out the center, but fail to cover the player running on the baseline. Illinois also played a man defense last night, but paid no attention to players cutting on the baseline. This ended in dunk after dunk after dunk, for both Wisconsin and Michigan State. Here is a clip of last night’s game which show the defensive breakdowns. Key time Stamps are 0:25, 0:38, 1:14 and 2:08.
On defense, Brad Underwood needs to take a look at what he did last year. Last year’s Oklahoma State squad was winless in the Big 12 until mid January and last in defensive efficiency in the conference. The defense also struggled late in games, (for this year see: Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota and Northwestern a.k.a. Illinois’ other 6 losses in the B1G) and had consistent defensive break downs, while being able to score on offense. Check out this article about the changes Underwood made last year from Pistol’s Firing, the similarities are eerily similar. For the next 10 games, the Illini need to constrict their defense, allow less shots in the paint and make the other team take tough shots. It worked last year for OkState, it should be able to work for the Illini.
The Illini have the 43rd toughest schedule remaining according to KenPom. If changes are made, making the dance is not out of question. Illini tip-off tonight at 8 pm against Indiana. The Illini are actually favored against the Hoosiers who are 5-3 in the conference and 12-8 over all, and KenPom predicts a 3 point win for Illinois. Illinois for once is the bigger teams and should be able to push around the Hoosiers now that De’Ron Davis is out for the season.This is a win that the Illini really need and should get at Statefarm Center.