It was a perfect storm in East Lansing as the Illini fell 79-54 to the Spartans. The Illini (8-8, 0-3 Big Ten) were already short handed and then had to play without one of their most consistent scorers, Kendrick Nunn. The Spartans (15-1, 2-1) were also playing their fourth game in a row without Denzel Valentine. The Spartans were a completely different team without Valentine in the lineup for the last three games, and that gave hope for the Illini. The Spartans were assisting on 79% of their made field goals with Valentine in the lineup. In the three games without Valentine leading up to the game with Illinois, the Spartans were only assisting on 54% of their made field goals. Unfortunately for Illinois, the Spartans figured out how to play without Denzel, assisting on 26 of 33 made field goals for 79% against the Illini.
The Illini have dropped the first three conference games, and now Purdue -- which has one of the best, if not the best, front lines in the country -- is coming in on Sunday. With rebounding such a large issue for the Illini all season long, there is good reason for the Illini faithful to be worried about the Boilers (14-2, 2-1). So how do the Illini avoid a slid similar to what they saw in 2011-12, when the team dropped 12 of the final 14 games of the season in Bruce Weber’s final year?
What are some signs to look for on a team that doesn’t believe it can win or is packing it in for the season? The coaches will be able to feel it at practice. You can do high intensity drills in practice and make the players go hard, but you can’t fake enthusiasm. The coaches will know if the players are coming with the right mindset. When a team is not coming to practice with enthusiasm, it is a grind to get through a practice. To keep the enthusiasm, a staff has to be able to read their team. There is a time and place for everything. Some practices need to be intense and demand more from your players. But there has to be a balance of focused but less intense practices as well, otherwise the players will start to tune the coach out.
Are players coming to the gym on their own? This is always a great indicator if a team still believes or if they are just trying to get to the end of a season. When the staff stops hearing balls bouncing in the gym after practice hours, the team is heading south. Since you can only work the players out for 20 hours a week, you can’t demand that players come in on their own. But it will be obvious to the staff who is coming in and who is not. The ones coming in will continue to improve and their attitudes will always be the best on the team. Those are the players you have to roll with the rest of the season.
During a game, there are some signs to watch for. How is the energy and activity of the bench? If you don’t care about the season or your teammates, you can’t fake this. The bench will be up and excited for each other. When there are timeouts called, are all the players in a tight group or do you have a few guys that are always away from the huddle without their eyes engaged on coaches or teammates? When there is a break on the court do all the players huddle quickly to call out plays or get on the same page? A few stats to keep an eye on during the game are charges attempted and assist-to-field-goal ratio. Are guys still willing to take a charge for their team? Assists per made field goal is sometimes just a result of the offensive system, but a team that is enjoying playing with each other is going to share the basketball. The Spartans are a clear example of that. Again, the players that are showing these things in the game are the players that need to be getting the majority of the minutes. This is how you build a culture and a foundation for your program.
Stopping a team's slide is much more difficult than just making a few adjustments. It is so important for a coach to have a good feel for how to motivate their team. Every team is different from year to year, and every player is different on each team. But there are signs to look for and you can tell who is bought in and who is not. When things are going south, you have to play the guys that have two feet in. It is the only way to keep positive momentum and energy. One of the great sport clichés is, "The next game is the most important." That is true to a point. But you can’t coach game to game. There has to be a long term vision to winning.
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.