Illinois did not play a perfect game on Sunday, but the Illinidid play their game -- and that was the biggest difference in their upset win over the Boilers. And it was a huge win for the Illini (9-8, 1-3 Big Ten). Purdue (14-3, 2-2) has not only the best front court in the Big Ten but maybe the best front court in the nation. It was going to be very hard for the Illini to win the points in the paint (lost 30-20). Winning the battle on the boards was going to be almost impossible (lost 31-25 and 10-2 on the offensive glass). By playing small, the illini made Purdue adjust to them.
The Illini are most explosive on offense with they play small. By playing smal,l they made Purdue match up with them. The strength of Purdue is going big. But when they went big, the Boilermakers couldn't guard the Illini. It was especially difficult for Purdue when they had two bigs on the floor together. Freshman forward Caleb Swanigan had to match up on Illini guard Malcolm Hill at times in the first half, and Hill (30 points) took advantage of that. Even freshman forward D.J. Williams took advantage of the slower Swanigan on a baseline drive in the first half. When Swanigan, Isaac Haas or A.J. Hammons was not on Hill, they still had to help in rotations and they were not comfortable doing that. When the bigs had to guard players out on the floor, it took them away from protecting the basket as well. Without Kendrick Nunn on Thursday, the Illini tried to play big against Michigan State with Michael Finke and Mav Morgan on the floor at the same time, and it didn't work at all. It was a painful lesson, but it resulted in the Illini getting a big home win over Purdue.
On defense, the Illini were locked in and executed the game plan. It was very clear that Illinois was not going to let the bigs have a good night. The Illini packed in the defense and at times had four or fivve white jerseys inside the lane when a big caught the ball. The Illini did not get spread out and chased shooters on the perimeter. At times, they even went under screens on shooters. That is normally an absolute “no-no”, but the Illini were going to play the odds and make Purdue beat them from the outside and not the inside. Illinois did give up some open looks from beyond the arc because of this, and in the first half Purdue made 5 of 11 threes. But the Boilers were not getting a lot from their bigs around the basket. The Illini continued to play the pack defense with terrific weak-side help and the percentages caught up to Purdue in the second half, when they made only 2 of 11 threes. In every defense there is going to be a weak spot. The Illini focused on the inside and made Purdue beat them from the outside -- and on this night Purdue could not.
The Illini received special performances from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. The Illini are going to need around 40 combined points from these two guys to win games in the Big Ten, and they got 52 on Sunday. What was more impressive than the 52 combined points was that it only took them 27 shot attempts to get those points. They were extremely efficient and did not force the issue. Nunn’s 9-0 run to start the second half was the difference in the game. The first three was just Nunn stepping up and hitting the shot. That set up the next possession by getting him back to the top of the key, and he took his man to the rim for a finish. John Groce then ran a great set to get Nunn involved in movement that finished with a double screen for a curl three that led to a four-point play. The double screen was terrific because it involved both bigs from Purdue. They had to guard movement early in the possession and then had to get out and show on the screen, and they were not there to help with led to the foul on the shot.
This was a terrific win for the Illini. By playing small ball and not matching up with the bigs of Purdue, they made the Boilers play a game that was not to their strength. Good coaching and good execution.
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.
Sean's +/- Big Ten standings
Rules of +/- standings. When you win at home you get a “0." When you lose on the road you get a “0." When you lose at home you get a minus-1. When you win on the road you get a plus-1. This evens out the unbalanced schedule during the season. Usually it takes a plus-4 to get a share of Big Ten title or plus-5 to win it outright. Usually, all positives have a good shot at the NCAA Tournament. Usually, even is a Bubble team.
Standings after games on 1/10/16
Michigan State +2
Ohio State +1
Penn State -1