Just by looking at the score and the stats (outrebounded by 23), many would say Wednesday's 69-65 Illinois win wasn't a very good effort by the Illini. But if you look at the game a bit closer, you'll find several promosing signs.
There were execution things that need to get cleaned up, but coaching execution is a lot easier than coaching effort.
First, lets look at the defensive side of the ball. The easiest way to figure out if the Illini are playing with energy is to watch their hands on defense. When the Illini are closing out with high hands and getting deflections, they are locked in defensively. The Illini were very active with their hands against Yale. They were able to come up with seve steals and force 23 Yale turnovers. The Illini sped up the Bulldogs and made them look uncomfortable for most of the game.
Blitzed on the boards
Now, lets take a look at the defensive breakdowns that led to Yale winning the rebound battle by a 23-board margin, including 17 offensive rebounds.
Yale is a very good offensive rebounding team, but getting beat on the boards at home by 23 is unacceptable. Again, the problem for the Illini is keeping the ball in front of them off the dribble. It was very clear that the Illini wanted to “ICE” the ball on the wing, which means to force it to the baseline on ballscreens. When the Illini executed this properly, Yale went baseline and ran into turnovers. When the ball goes baseline, the help-side defenders can over-help and are in position to make a play on the ball.
The Illini got in trouble when they were beat middle. This happened several times by just having their feet turned the wrong way. This is corrected easily, but it happened way too many times on Wednesday. When the ball goes middle, the help has to stay out of the lane on both sides of the floor, which opens up driving lanes. Or, if the Illini do help on the middle drive, it opens up a free path to the basket for the offensive rebound. Watching film to point out the footwork will help the players “see” what they are doing wrong. Doing closeout drills in practice will help create the muscle memory of doing it correctly.
Another area that continues to hurt the Illini on defense is getting back cut from the wing or corner. This is just a matter of technique. A few times, it was as simple as not seeing man and ball. You have to put yourself in a position to see both. The other problem is when the defender is going back to his man, he is too high up the floor. So when the defender goes backdoor, there is a free path to the basket as opposed to having your body between the man and the basket -- which forces them to run you over or to take an indirect path to the basket.
Pushing the pace
On the offensive end, the Illini made a concerted effort to push the basketball on makes and misses. I really liked the pace and the flow to the offense for most of the game.
The Illini were able to get some quick baskets in transition, but more importantly they applied constant pressure to Yale. This forced the tempo and at times created mismatches. Pushing the basketball consistently will not get you a basket every trip but it will wear the defense down over time.
I would also like to see the Illini bigs run to the front of the rim in transition. It would give them the potential to get an easy basket, but it would also put more pressure on the defense and open up the perimeter for the guards. When bigs do a “rim run” the defense has to get back into the lane and it usually creates an open opportunity for the guards or creates mismatches because usually it is a guard that protects the rim in transition.
The Illini did a good job of being balanced on the offensive end. They took 40 percent of their shots from behind the arc. This is about right for this team. Some of the threes they missed were good shots. They just didn’t make them. The shot selection was very good for most of the game.
Kendrick Nunn, Kendrick Nunn and more Kendrick Nunn. Right now Nunn is playing with a great amount of confidence. He is attacking when it is there and hitting shoots from three. Outside of the Notre Dame game, he has been fantastic. His energy is high and his motor is going. Malcolm Hill also looked to be back to the Malcolm we have seen most of the year. It will be important for these two guys to continue to play consistently.
The Illini need to continue to play with energy. Pushing the pace on makes and misses is a good look for this team. On the defensive end they need to continue to pay attention to details. But overall, there were some good things to build on from the Yale game.
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.