Who will stop the bleeding?
That’s the question I get most often from Illinois Fighting Illini fans and, frankly, I don’t know if I have the answers either.
John Groce has been searching for different ways to kick start his team. He recently inserted Sam McLaurin in the starting lineup and benched Brandon Paul. Nothing seems to have really changed though.
Of course, the Illini shouldn’t even be in this situation as it is. You just had to take care of business on the road against the Purdue Boilermakers and at home versus the Northwestern Wildcats. They didn’t and this is where we stand.
Despite the great wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule, you can’t just bottom out and expect to be in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini’s best friend, though, might be the fact the committee officially took out the “last 10 games” metric they used for many years. If the current trajectory is any indication, that would be enough to send them to the NIT.
Now the Indiana Hoosiers come to Champaign ranked as the number one team in the country. This is a real opportunity to get back on track. The Hoosiers took down the, then number one, Michigan Wolverines in a huge game last Saturday and have to travel to Columbus this Sunday to take on the 10th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Trap game anyone? I think so. Especially when you consider how Tom Crean likes to play that “goofy looking” 2-3 zone. Let’s break it down….
I’d like to borrow a line from former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith. The Illini must “start fast and finish strong.” For a team that severely lacks confidence this is a must. This isn’t the NBA where you can get buried early and expect the other squad to just let off the gas. Indiana wants to prove they can win decisively on the road and if they get a lead early they won’t let up.
Run the offense around Tracy Abrams and even Joseph Bertrand. Call me crazy but they are the only two players that consistently show a willingness to go to the rim for the Illini. You can’t shoot 25 threes, shoot less than 15 free throws, and expect to win.
I also want to see Nnanna Egwu get some touches on the block. He’s shown a nice shooting touch recently and Cody Zeller isn’t the greatest individual defender. Force him to come out to the elbow and leave those driving lanes open for Abrams, Bertrand and, hopefully, Brandon Paul.
Defensively, I want the Illini to throw a little full court pressure on. Yes, the Hoosiers want to play fast. This will no doubt speed them up (I bet you think I’m crazy right now, if you already didn’t). However, they really only have one consistent ball handler in freshman Yogi Ferrell. If you can get Jordan Hulls or Remy Abell in pressure situations, you’ve got a damn good chance at forcing a turnover. You can’t play these guys straight up in either man or zone. They are a machine offensively. Throw a little wrinkle at them.
Prove to me you can take your game after from your Assembly Hall. That’s been the big question for people across the college basketball landscape. The NCAA Tournament won’t be held in Bloomington anytime soon.
I want to see Hulls and Christian Watford play a little two man game early. Hulls needs to regain his shooting stroke on the road against a quality opponent and Watford has got to be aggressive. Too many times he’ll just camp on the three point line waiting for the ball to come to him. He needs to do something to earn his teammates trust. Post against McLaurin or Tyler Griffey and go to work. Neither of them could defend a piece of furniture, if asked. 20 points, with only say two threes, shouldn’t be too much to ask.
I’m not one of these people freaking out about Zeller’s relative lack of production during Big Ten play. He’s still a force in a college game devoid of any great big men. However, he’s got to get stronger to play at the next level and if I were him I wouldn’t even think about the NBA right now. If Andrew Smith can push you around…. you get my point.
Defensively, don’t play that stupid zone. It’s a cute change up, yes, but that’s not going to be your bread and butter come March. Be aggressive in your man-to-man. Go over every screen and force the Illini to attack the basket. Zeller can cover your backside.
I still think when all is said and done the Illini will make the tournament. Probably around the 10 or 11 line since the bubble is so weak. They’ll be up for this game but won’t be able to hold up on the glass leading to a comfortable Indiana win. Hoosiers 75 – Illini 64.
Like my article? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter (@tmichaelcronin). I look forward to your thoughts.