Illinois basketball's good vibes from Florida continued into the first half of Wednesday's game against Notre Dame as the Illini grabbed a 41-33 halftime lead
Illinois played with confidence and swagger. Illinois had good ball movement. Guys attacked the basket with good pace.
On the defensive end, the Illini were a step quicker than the Irish. The Illini showed the best ball pressure and the most active hands I have seen from the Illini this season. Their defense made Notre Dame uncomfortable, took them out of a rhythm and caused several turnovers which led to easy points. The Illini pressure made Demetrius Jackson look out of rhythm.
The second half took on quite a different feel as Notre Dame stormed back to top the Illini 84-79.
There were two big turning points.
The first happened at the 18:30 mark of the second half. The Illini (3-5) had a 10-point lead and played a great defensive possession for 27 seconds. They were controlling the game. But then the Irish (5-2) received four straight opportunities due to offensive boards, which led to a Steve Vasturia layup. It was just one possession. But if the Illini get one of those boards, they might open up a 12- or 13-point lead, and the defensive pressure keeps rolling. Instead, the Irish went on a 12-1 run (and then a 25-6 run) from that point and the momentum of the game completely turned. The Illini never got that defensive pressure back and the Irish got really comfortable on the offensive end.
These are the possessions that completely turn games. Most people want to focus on the end of games, but every possession in a game is important and some possessions set tones that carry over for an entire half.
The second turning point happened at the 15:17 mark. The Irish went to a 2-3 zone defense. The Illini did not get much ball or body movement against the zone. Often, the ball stalled around the perimeter, and Illinois got very little penetration.
The Illini undoubtedly missed Mike Thorne Jr. during this stretch, but they also need to find ways to get Malcolm Hill -- who went without a shot attempt from the 12:51 mark to the 0:27 mark of the second half -- more looks against the zone.
The Illini relied too much on the three in the second half. In the first half, the Illini attacked with a balanced offense, shooting 35 percent of their shots from behind the arc. In the second half, 45 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
The Illini need to use their shooters to extend the defense and make the zone move. By spacing the floor with shooters, the Illini need to move the ball quicker and get the zone moving (due to respect of their shooters). This will open up driving lanes and the middle of the floor for flashes, where Malcolm Hill can go to work.
It is so important to get inside the zone on the drive or the pass. This sucks in the defense and creates drive and kick shots, which are the best ones to shoot as the shooter is stepping into the shot while facing the basket. When the ball is passed around the perimeter without inside attacks, the defense does not have to make rotations for helping situations.
The good news for the Illini is they have looked good for four and a half of the last six halves of basketball against some of the best competition they have seen this year. They should be able to run off a handful of wins in a row and get some momentum heading into the conference season.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He 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.