Illinois continues to ride a rollercoaster. Not only from game to game, but also from half to half. Consistency continues to be the Illini's major issue.
Unfortunately, one of the Illini's biggest recent consistencies is slow starts to the second half. Now that they have entered Big Ten play, starting the half off slowly is going to get them beat.
To start the second half of Wednesday's 78-68 loss to Michigan, the Illini looked a step slow.
On offense, there was not enough ball movement. There were too many possessions with guys taking the ball on their own trying to make plays before there was ball and body movement.Teams in the Big Ten are not going to allow you to beat them off the dribble without movement before the drive. On the possessions that did have ball reversals, the cuts and movement from the players were not quick or sharp. This allowed the Wolverines to be on their man when they caught the ball.
Malcolm Hill is an All-Big Ten player but he sure wasn't in this game. Credit Michigan for what they did to him defensively. He did not have many open looks. But Illinois and Hill have to do a better job of getting him involved in the offense when things are not going well. There were way too many possessions early in the second half where Hill did not touch the ball. That is on Illinois for not getting him touches, and it is on Hill for not making himself available. When Hill does get touches, he has to be aggressive and not just go through the motions.
On the defensive end, the Illini were not locked in during the second half. It always starts with the hands and closeouts for Illinois. In the second half, there were not enough deflections and steals (four steals in first half, two in second half). There was also a lack of communication on the defensive end. Mark Donnal was a huge surprise for Michigan scoring a career-high 26 points. But there were some missed assignments on the ball screen and dives that allowed Donnal to score, giving him confidence.
Illinois needs to figure out why there was a lack of energy to start the second half. There are a few ways to improve in-game adjustments. First, running set plays -- or a continuity on offense -- that you know will force ball and body movement could help get the Illini into an offensive rhythm. This would allow each player to get a touch of the ball and get everyone on the same page. It'd force the opposing defense to work to start the half. Secondly, the Illini coaches should put each player on a short leash to start the half. If the coaches don't see crisp cuts and passes in the first few possessions, pull that player out of the game.
There are a few in-game adjustments on the defensive end to try as well. First, just watch the players' hands. If they are not high on closeouts or active on the ball handler, the staff should pull the player out. Second, switching defenses every possession might be a way to keep the opponent guessing and keep them out of a ryhthm. Third, maybe a three-quarters court or full-court press for a few possessions would get the players moving and force them to play faster and with more energy.
In practice, the staff can simulate getting off to quick starts. In the middle of a practice, the coaches can do a few quick three-minute scrimmages mixed within the practice. Switch the teams up each time and keep track of records. The players with the best records that week in practice get to start the second half. Get the players to start thinking about getting off to a quick start.
There are many causes of Illinois' slow-second-half problem. Some of it is energy. Some of it is a fundamental issue. Some of it is a communication issue. It could also now be a mental block for the Illini -- where they know they are not getting off to good starts. By putting in a few set plays, monitoring their body language on offense and defense and simulating it in practice, the Illini might be able to solve their slow starts in the second half. If they don't correct the issue, it's going to be difficult to win Big Ten games.
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.