Two Key Observations From Illinois’ Win Over USC in Maui

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 20th, 2012

Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.

In case you did not stay up until the wee hours on Monday night to watch the Maui Invitational, you probably missed Illinois’ dominating 30-point win over Southern California. The Trojans brought in a slew of talented transfers this season and are expected to be competitive in the Pac-12 and potentially make a run at an NCAA bid. The game was supposed to a close contest between two good teams but John Groce’s Illini took off with the game immediately from the tip-off. The Illini shot 45% from beyond the arc on their way to building a 30-point lead during the first half. Illinois fans are cautiously optimistic about their team because they have been used to late season slumps after a hot start, but last night’s group had a different feel to them. There was an extra hop to the steps of DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul and company that was non-existent during the last two months of the 2011-12 season. Keeping in mind that it is just one game against a team that is not a juggernaut, the following are two key takeaways from last night’s game:

D.J. Richardson and the Illini look like a revamped group so far this season.

  1. Defensive Intensity: When Illinois played three guards (D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams) along with a wing (Myke Henry or Joe Bertrand), they were very quick on defense in disrupting the passing lanes. They lack the depth in the frontcourt and may be exposed in the paint but the guards caused a ruckus by being extremely active and pressing the ball-handlers in the half court sets. The Illini big men – Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey, may not be able to defend the post effectively which means that the opponents can push the ball inside but this strategy will backfire if the Illini guards make it very tough for the guards to make an effective entry pass. The USC forwards — Aaron Fuller and Eric Wise -– were never truly comfortable in the paint because their guards could not settle down. During most of the Trojans’ inbound plays, Egwu jumped up and down in front of the  player who was trying to inbound the ball which forced him to throw the pass to the other end of the court and a reset of their offense all over again. Paul, Bertrand and Abrams were all over the USC guards and forced 16 turnovers including 11 steals. Every Illini fan is expecting the guards to push the tempo offensively but Groce might have convinced them to make a difference on the defense immediately.
  2. Efficient use of the forwards: Egwu and Griffey are not traditional forwards who like to play with their backs to the basket but Groce may have figured out an efficient way to incorporate their existing strengths into the offensive sets. Griffey has great range on this jumper and prefers to shoot off pick-and-rolls around the perimeter. Egwu’s offensive skills are very immature at this stage of his career and he doesn’t have a clear size advantage to play in the post either. The lack of a true big man means that the Illini will get out-rebounded and have to rely on the guards to produce offense. However, Groce’s half court sets do a great job of creating match-up problems by using the forwards’ quickness. Throughout the game last night, both Egwu and Griffey would begin sets by setting a high screen at the top of the key for the ball-handler. This forced the Trojans’ big men to step farther away from the basket than they would have preferred. When the first ball screen was well-defended, the Illini would go back to another one immediately after a few more seconds. By keeping the big men constantly in motion, the Illini wore down the opposing forwards, hence neutralizing their size on defense. Egwu and Griffey may not have the size but they are quick and their strengths can be maximized during these plays. Griffey adds more value than Egwu but because of his ability to step back and shoot when the defender doesn’t switch back after the pick and roll. Overall, these types of half court plays also force the rest of the guards to move around along the baseline which could potentially eliminate lazy, flat-footed shots from beyond the arc.

The win doesn’t mean that Illinois is team that could head to the NCAA Tournament, but the expectations for this squad this season includes improvement from last year, not necessarily in terms of wins, but with regard to the intensity and energy among the players on the floor. There were definitely concerns from the game last night (Abrams’ eight turnovers), but every Illini fan is walking around with a smile today because it has been a while since they have seen their team beat anyone by 30 points.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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