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. Read the rest of this entry »