The Illinois Fighting Illini are the talk of the college basketball world. A team that fell into disarray under Bruce Weber late last season has suddenly returned to the top of the Big Ten…. or that’s what the national media wants you to think. Add in a really good win against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Spokane and you’d think you could start buying Final Four tickets right now. As a wise man once said, “not so fast my friend.”
I want to be clear though. I’m not taking one thing away from the Gonzaga game. That was a really impressive win against a good Gonzaga team. A Zags group I think is finally ready for that elusive Final Four run. They finally have athletes both inside and outside. This isn’t a team that will be at a disadvantage when they play other high major squads. Nevertheless, they don’t play much defense and the Illini took advantage. Kudos.
Now that I’ve heaped just praise on the Fighting Illini I’ve got to get real with you. This is a team that relies almost solely on the 3 ball. That’s great when you are at home in conference play where you can dictate the pace. When you project though an NCAA tournament setting it doesn’t match up nearly as well. Those games are generally slow down, half court, affairs that force you to execute different facets of your offense. Without Meyers Leonard this year, the Illini don’t really have that interior threat. He was a knucklehead that wouldn’t get back on defense but he really developed as a post player. Unless you think the extremely raw Nnanna Egwu is going to become a competent inside threat, I don’t see this team having a real option.
Additionally, while new head man John Groce has brought a 2-3 zone to Champaign, something you never saw under Weber, I’m not exactly thrilled with what I’ve seen. Listen, I get this isn’t going to be the long, trapping zone we see year after year with the Syracuse Orange. I’m a realistic man. However, the Illini don’t move their feet well and tend to reach with their hands. That opens up back door cuts and easy flashes for post men. A better alternative to me is to mix in some half court trap, in addition to the usual man-to-man. Illinois is an athletic and relatively deep squad. Let the guys get a “sweat” on while playing defense.
Overall, I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen from Coach Groce in his first year as head coach. That despite the fact he wasn’t the first, second or even perhaps third choice for the top job. Too many times under Weber this team played with no energy. I attributed that to their head coach. There’s too much talent on this team to finish with 6 conference victories again. I think they’ll make the big dance due to the strength of the league. As for a deep run in March? Let’s not yet take that to the bank.
Like my article? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter (@tmichaelcronin). I look forward to your thoughts.