The Illini got a much-needed road win at Minnesota on Saturday night. For the first time in conference play, the Illini (10-10, 2-5 Big Ten) won both the rebounding (49-38) and the points in the paint (28-22) battles. Those are winning statistics, especially on the road. And those were not the only good things to come out of Saturday's overtime win over the Gophers (6-14, 0-8 Big Ten). The Illini got a surprise night from Maverick Morgan (14 points and 7 rebounds), and Michael Finke also grabbed 16 rebounds. Some of this production came with both of the bigs on the floor at the same time. The Illini are a much better team playing small, but if they get this type of production with Morgan and Finke on the floor at the same time, it gives the Illini a different look.
Illinois’ issues have overshadowed just how well Malcolm Hill has played at times. He was terrific again up in Minneapolis, finishing with his fourth double-double (28 points, 10 rebounds) of the season. Hill controlled the game, attacked the rim and didn’t settle for the outside jumper. He only took two threes out of his 17 shot attempts. He got to the free throw line 14 times, making 13 of them. So how do the Illini move forward with two big home games this week (Ohio State on Thursday and Wisconsin on Sunday)?
It's hard to get road wins in the Big Ten. So winning at Minnesota, despite the Gophers' record, is a big deal.
Now, the Illini must do something they have struggled to do: follow a good win with another good win. It's critical for the Illini to be focused right from the start against Ohio State (13-8, 5-3 Big Ten) on Thursday. The Illini have struggled getting off to good starts, a big key to the game against Ohio State. On offense, Illini have to remain balanced in their attack. At Minnesota, the Illini only took 18 of their 62 shot attempts from three (29% of their shots). This is a much better percentage than in previous games. The Illini have very effective three-point shooters, but they can’t be one-dimensional like they have been many times this year. The offense has to run through Malcolm Hill. He is playing at a very high level and needs to get touches. This doesn’t always mean he has to get a shot up, but he needs to touch the ball on most possessions. Hill is drawing the attention of the opponents, so the more he touches it, the more defenses have to react to how they are going to play him. If it is sending double teams his way, that opens up driving lanes for others and creates rotations for the defense.
Along the same lines, the offense is much better when several players touch the basketball each possession. The Illini need to continue to quickly move the ball and their bodies from one side of the court to the other. This again fores defenses to react to movement and creates rotations and driving lanes. The Illini were a lot better at ball and body movement in Minnesota when compared to the Indiana game. The offense had some structure to it, and the guys were playing on the same page.
Playing two bigs at the same time?! This seemed like a bad option just two weeks ago. However, Morgan and Finke played at the same time and played well together. If these two can give you that kind of production, it gives the Illini a different look at both ends of the floor. There is no question having these two out there at the same time helped win the battles of the boards and points in the paint. When both of them are on the floor, the Illini can go to a blocker/mover offensive look. This is where Morgan and Finke can stay on opposite sides of the floor and set lots of screens for the three guards on the move They need to set lots of down screens and flare screens. They also can set ball screens. Both guys have the ability to screen and roll or screen and pop. When you have two bigs that can pop and roll, the defense has to make a decision on how to play the ball screens. Both Finke and Morgan are dual threats. When both are effective on the court at the same time, they cause defensive struggles.
The Illini must continue to mix up their defense. The zone was very effective against Minnesota. The Gophers were never able to penetrate the zone and became one dimensional, shooting 36 of their 69 attempts from beyond the arc. The Buckeyes are good at driving to the lane off the dribble, so a good mix of man and zone will keep the Buckeyes off balance. If the Illini can play zone, it also allows them to play big with Morgan and Finke. That hould help with rebounding again. Against Wisconsin, the Badgers are playing more like the Badgers of old with the swing offense. They are playing at a little slower pace and are not driving the ball quite as much. The Illini should have a favorable man defensive matchup in this game. Yet, with the Badgers struggling from outside, a good mix of man and zone will help the Illini.
This is a very important week for the Illini to gain some momentum with two home games against two beatable teams. It has the potential to be a turning point week for the Illini season -- if they build on the positives from Minneapolis.
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 1/24/16
Ohio State +1
Michigan State 0
Penn State -1