A Closer Look At Illinois’ Issues During The Losing StreakPosted by Deepak Jayanti on January 22nd, 2013
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.
After a surprising 13-1 start to the season, Illinois has been in a funk over the last two weeks. Losing at Purdue to tip off the Big Ten season could be written off as an aberration because it was the first road game of the conference season but their recent three-game losing skid has raised several questions about the team’s future in the near term, specifically as to their quest for an NCAA Tournament bid. The main reason behind their hot start was their deadly long-range shooting but the good old saying, “You live by the three and you die by the three,” has certainly been true in the Illini’s recent losses to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. During those three games, Illinois as a team has shot just 8-of-58 (14% 3FG) from beyond the arc! It is no secret that they lack a true big man who could hold his own in the low post, and therefore the team has no choice but to depend on perimeter shooting in its offensive sets. But a closer look into these three losses reveals that there are two other aspects of their game that have hurt them in addition to their shooting woes, but the good news is that these areas can certainly be improved to get out of the slump.
- Perimeter defense: Illini guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Joseph Bertrand may have gone cold from beyond the arc recently, but they also need to do a better job of defending the three-point shot on the other end of the court. Their opponents have knocked down 51% (27-of-53) of their attempts from long range over the last three games. If you can’t find your jumper, the least you can do is to step up your defense and make the opposition earn its points. Bill Carmody’s Wildcats had a horrible game offensively against Iowa, but their wings drained five three-pointers in the first half in Champaign to build a 15-point lead which forced the Illini to play catch-up for the last 30 minutes of the game. Groce’s guards have also played poor transition defense and have given up open shots to opposing guards who prefer to drive rather than shoot, such as Minnesota’s Joe Coleman. Coleman torched the Illini by scoring 29 points from all over the floor – he shot 2-of-3 from beyond the arc and picked up three easy baskets in transition following a missed three-pointer by the Illini — and it was obvious that Paul or Richardson were more frustrated about their shooting slump than getting back on defense. The lackadaisical defensive effort by these players can clearly be attributed to their offensive struggles. When they can’t find their offensive rhythm, they often run back down the court without picking up their assigned man. The lack of good perimeter defense exacerbates these offensive woes because once they fall behind in the game, they have no choice but to rely on the trey even more to cut into the lead. Defensive issues can easily be corrected considering the team’s depth at the guard position. With Tracy Abrams, Paul, Richardson, and Bertrand at his disposal, Groce has four guards who can be part of an effective rotation. Even though 6’7″ wing Mike Henry has struggled with his defensive rotations, he still has the athleticism to become effective on the defensive end.
- Improve the assist rate: After losing Meyers Leonard to the NBA, we knew that the Illini would get dominated in the paint because of their glaring inexperience in the frontcourt. Even though sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu hustles on every play, he still lacks the size and experience to handle bigger Big Ten forwards such as Jared Berggren, Cody Zeller, or Trevor Mbakwe. Without the personnel to score in the low post, it is understandable that Groce’s offense relies on perimeter shooting, but they need better looks at the basket which can be triggered by improved ball movement. Most of the missed shots have been a result of isolation plays at the top of the key or the guards not having their feet properly set when shooting the ball. During the three-game skid, only 16 of the total 60 successful shots have come by way of an assist. Approximately 75% of those shots came from isolation plays, which is not a good sign unless you have guards who can consistently break down their defenders. The Illini are the worst team in the B1G in terms of assists per field goals made according to KenPom. Paul usually settles for jumpers at the top of the key without getting much separation, and Bertrand tries to break down the defender on his way to the basket but good defensive teams have studied Illinois’ tendencies and are locking those options up. The Badgers’ Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson knew Paul’s offensive moves before he did, and therefore held him to just 1-of-11 from the field. In addition to the lack of a low post scoring threat, the Illini don’t really have a true point guard on this squad. Abrams is still learning how to play the point and has issues holding on to the ball during half court sets as he averages 2.9 turnovers per game. He can get by his man because he is quick enough to do so, but there are a number of plays which results in a turnover because he passes the ball back out to the perimeter. The dribble-drive play can work in theory but the guard should be able to kick out to the corners, not pass the ball to a guard behind him. Groce has even tried to instill some new energy on the floor by putting in Mike LaTulip, a walk-on guard, to handle the ball in the half court, but the move hasn’t yet paid off. It is very tough to change the team’s entire offensive philosophy at this juncture of the season, but the least they can do is move the ball around more to find a better shot from beyond the arc.