There sure is a fine line between winning and losing. A 60-59 loss at Providence just provides more proof for Illinois.
So many times in a one-ppoint loss, most will focus on the final minute to think what could have been done differently to change the outcome. For the Illini (1-2), they got exactly what they wanted on the final possession. Malcolm Hill got to the basket and didn't settle for a long jumper. He got a good look at the rim. His drive forced help and opened a lane for a great tip dunk opportunity for Michael Finke. The ball just didn't fall.
This team knows that an NCAA appearance is the goal this year. Realistically, the Illini need to get through the the non conference with three losses. Three games in and they're already two thirds of the way to that total. Every loss is a big hit at this point. You can use this as motivation, or it can add a weight of pressure to the team.
When I was at Illinois, we lost a home game to Michigan State during the 2001-2002 season to drop our conference record to 4-5. Our goal was to win the Big Ten, and we knew at that point that we had to win out to do so. It drew us closer together as a team because most people counted us out at that point. We went on to win the conference.
What could the Illini have done in the first 39 minutes to change the outcome?
The Illini did a much better job of containing the dribble. Holding Kris Dunn to 10 points and three assists was terrific. The Illini kept fresh guys on him and showed him a few different looks on ballscreens by hard hedging and showing flat at time. Playing a 1-3-1 zone really contained Dunn and took away driving opportunities for him as well. The Illini needed to shut down Dunn to win and they did that.
You have to credit Kyron Cartwright for making big threes in the first half and credit Ben Bentil for his impressive double double. Those two guys stepped up their game to help Providence to the win.
The Illini gave up 16 offensive rebounds and that is too many to get a road win. Some of those were zone rotations and others were just Providence hitting the glass hard. But these are some of the plays that need to be corrected when games come down to the last play.
Rebounding is tough to simulate in practice. If you do a drill of course everyone will box out in that drill. But you have to do it in live situations. Rick Majerus never did a rebounding drill but he charter rebounding for every practice in live situations. That is how you learn who will rebound or not. The best way to rebound out of the zone is to talk about the rotations and then chart them in live situations.
Turnovers were also an issue at times. 13 is not terrible but some of those are unforced. Offensive fouls or bad passes give away scoring opportunities. In games decided by 1 point every possession is big and turnovers have to be reduced to steal road wins.
I would have liked to see the Illini get the ball to the short corner or middle of the Providence zone more. Good things happened when they did. Malcolm Hill is such a tough player to guard when he flashes in there.
Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands were very good on the offensive end. Hill looked more comfortable, took less forced shots and made big plays. Maverick Morgan continues to give positive minutes. Unfortunately Mike Thorne Jr. went from 20+ points his first two games to zero against Providence. The Illini needed a few plays from the senior on the road.
The Illini did a lot of good things, but they must find a way to come out on the winning side of these games to continue to gain momentum.
One more defensive rebound. One fewer turnover. One more middle touch for Hill against the zone. Those are the little things that add up to a big win.
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.