Illinois basketball's 80-74 come-from-behind win over North Dakota State was a mixture of some good and some bad.
Bad: First half defense
Two things continued to be an issue for the Illini. First, opponents are getting too many open looks on the perimeter, especially good shooters. You just have to know where shooters are on the floor. Second, containing dribble penetration is a big problem. It is very difficult to stop any offense if you don’t contain the dribble.
Good: Second-half defense
The Illini were much more active in the second half. They forced 10 turnovers and outrebounded the Bison by six. Open looks were much harder to come by for North Dakota State. There was a confidence in their eyes and an improved body language that was not there for the first three halves of the season.
Bad: Starting games
For the second game in a row the Illini come out flat and put themselves in a deep hole. Coaches always talk about the first five minutes of the game setting a tone. After losing the first five to North Florida by seven points, the Illini came out and lost the first five minutes again, this time to the Bison by eight points. The Illini need to be the team forcing the tempo at home. Two games in a row, an underdog team came on the road and gained confidence in the first five minutes.
Good: Starting the second half
The Illini found themselves in the exact same situation as opening night, a double-digit halftime deficit. But the energy and focus was much different this time out after the break. The Illini came out and won the first five minutes of the second half by six points. Against North Florida they lost the first five minutes by five points. This allowed the Illini to stay in striking distance, and eventually North Dakota State lost confidence that they would win the game.
Looking ahead to Providence
The Illini are about to see maybe the best guard they will face all year in Kris Dunn. Dunn is extremely quick and can get by his defender to create his own shot or get his teammates involved (32 points and five assists on opening night). If the Illini don’t tighten up their dribble penetration defense, Dunn will have a field day and put up similar numbers again Wednesday night. Zone would be a very good option at times to slow down Dunn. I would even throw a little box-and-one at him, in which one Illini defender has zero help responsibilities. He just stays close to Dunn at all times and tries to deny him the ball back when he gives it up. Make him work hard to get open and score. The other four guys are in a 2-2 zone around the lane. Each guy has an area to cover but this keeps the defenders near the lane for help rotations in Dunn.
The Friars do not shoot the ball well from the outside. This might give the Illini the ability to help on the drive more than they could against the shooters they saw for North Florida and North Dakota State.
Getting the ball inside. Harvard’s big man was able to have a very efficient night against the Friars. Right now, no one is playing better than Mike Thorne Jr., coming off back-to-back 20+ point games, on the offensive end for the Illini. On the road, pounding the ball inside is always a good strategy.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.