Sean's Scout: Illini have irregular rotation problems

Illini Inquirer basketball analyst Sean Harrington breaks down why Illinois' lack of a consistent rotation pattern is a cause for concern

Setting a substitution pattern can really benefit a college basketball team, but every coach goes about this in a different manner.  

Some coaches don’t follow a pattern at all. Some coaches have tendencies that they like to follow. Some coaches like to switch a whole unit at a time. Some coaches like to have a script and sub based on the game clock.  

There are some factors that can cause a change in the plan. Injuries and foul trouble can really throw off a substitution pattern. If a player is really playing well or really playing poorly, a coach may adjust the rotation. A discipline problem can also force a coach switch the substitution pattern.  

Why is a substitution pattern useful? Athletes are creatures of habit.

Muscle memory and mental memory are very important in athletics. Everyone has a free-throw routine. This prepares you to shoot the ball the same way every time. A golfer will approach the ball in the same way every time they get ready to hit a shot or drain a putt. An athlete will also try to do similar things leading up to a game. Some call it superstition, but it is really just preparing your body and mind for what it is about to do.  

Starting a routine

When I was a player, it was always nice to know about the time I was going to get the call to get into the game. For most of my career at Illinois I was the first or second guard off the bench. My first entry into the game was usually during or just after the first media timeout.

During those first four minutes of the game I would try to watch for what was working on the offensive end for us. Were the post defenders playing top side, bottom side or behind?  This would give me a heads up on how I would make my post feeds. Was the defense trapping, hedging or going under ball screens?Now I knew what to look for coming off the screen.  

I had a checklist of things to look for in the game. And as the clock got closer to the 16-minute mark, my body was mentally getting ready to enter the game. If I had to enter the game early because of injury or foul trouble, my routine was thrown off. If I did not get entered into the game until the second media timeout, I would become overanxious to enter the game.

Think about when your alarm doesn’t go off in the morning. You have to rush through your routine or skip a few steps to get to work. Do you feel the same going into work that day as you do on a day when you go through your normal routine? An athlete approaches the game the same way.  

Illini rotation

The Illini have started eight different lineups in nine games this season -- mostly due to injury to normal starters Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black -- not to mention, Tracy Abrams.

It is nearly impossible to get a substitution rotation when the starters are different every game. This is definitely a major reason why the Illini have not started off games well or have not played the same way throughout a game. Their routine is disrupted.  

However, the starting lineup against Western Carolina was different for another reason. The starters in the second half were different than the first half and again it was not because of injury or foul trouble.

Groce attempted to send a message to a few of the players. Whether it is to play better defense (start of the game) or to play with more energy and be more of a vocal leader (why Malcolm Hill didn't start the second half), it's never a good sign for a coach to feel like he must send these messages to the team, especially nine games into a season.

Illinois players should have a chip on their shoulder. On this current playing roster, only Khalid Lewis (Abrams out for the year) has played in an NCAA tournament game.

There should be a hunger and an attitude to get to the tournament. If coaches must motivate them to play with energy or defend, then the coaches are wasting time that could be used more effectively on game plan or strategy. The teams that have the most success in a season motivate themselves and don’t need the coaches to light a fire under them.  

A substitution pattern is one thing that could help the Illini get into a good routine. Obviously, injuries have made this more difficult than other years.

But if the Illini have to change the rotation because of motivational tactics or because of discipline, then the Illini are a long way reaching their full potential.  

Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for 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.

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