Three things stuck out after the after the Illini dropped an overtime game to Ohio State. First, the Illini have failed at protecting the House of 'Paign. Second, the Illini have too many scoring droughts. Lastly, every possession matters.
First, lets take a look at defending home court. Winning in the Big Ten is hard, and it is extremely hard to win on the road. So you better win your home games. This has been a problem in the past few years, and now the Illini are off to a 1-3 Big Ten home record this season. Each year, a team goes into a season and talks about their goals. One of these is usually to win a conference championship. We used to talk about this as a team. We knew that it would take a 13-3 record to win the championship outright and 12-4 or 11-5 to get a share (only 16 games then). We always had a goal to win every home game. So if we could do that, we knew we had to go 5-3 to 3-5 on the road. Right now, the Illini are not taking care of business at home -- 16-15 under John Groce. You have to have a mindset that no one is coming into your house and winning. This is similar to the mindset you have to have on defense. This season, we have not seen that mindset from this team on defense or at home with any consistency.
How do you get the mindset? First it comes from the players. Do they have a killer instinct on the court? This is something you have to look at when you are recruiting. Does that player’s team win often in high school? If you are good enough to get a high-major offer, your team should be winning games in high school. Recruiting players from winning programs can help you win in college. How does a player react to a loss? Are they mad the team lost or are they just happy that they got their stats? These are two things to look at when recruiting players.
It is also important to get into a good routine at home. Start to train your mind and body to do the same thing leading up to games. Have similar practices, meetings, dinners. Don’t change the routine based on opponent. If you do, players start to wonder why they ar doing things differently. They will get over-hyped if they think it is a big game or they will assume they are going to just show up and win if it is a team you should beat. We always had a similar routine. We would do scout the same way. We could conduct practice the same way. We would have dinner at the same place. Another thing we did a lot was talk about winning at home. We used to say out loud all the time, “No one comes in here and beats us." We would say it the day before the game. We would talk about it at the shoot around. We would talk about it in the final moments before the game. When you say it enough, you begin to believe it.
The second issue the Illini are having is they go on long scoring droughts. On Thursday, the Illini went 10 minutes and one second without a field goal. How do you prevent long droughts? Don’t settle for outside jumpers. The Illini shot 51% of their attempts from beyond the arc against the Buckeyes. That is just way too many. The Illini are settling for the easy shot and not working the ball around to get a good shot. Ohio State is extremely long. To score against a team like that, you have to move the ball from side to side and attack open lanes. The Illini got very little ball movement, so when they drove to the rim, that length was sitting there waiting for them. The Illini fell into what we call “fool's gold” to start the game. They made shots from the outside and got off to a great start. Sometimes when this happens, the game feels easy and you lose the killer instinct. When you make shots early you have to continue to attack and take away the opponents belief they can win. The Illini let Ohio State back into it and the momentum completely shifted. The Illini are at their best when about 35 percent of their attempts come from beyond the arc. Right now, they are too one-dimensional and easy to guard.
The last issue is every possession matters. Everyone wants to focus on the last play, but every possession is big. Everyone just remembers the last one. So let's look at the last play in regulation. I am a big fan of not calling a timeout in those situations. If you call a timeout, it allows the defense to talk and get set up. The Illini got the ball into their best playmaker's hands in Malcolm Hill. In a tie game, and in the bonus, you attack the rim. You get a good look or possibly get fouled. Hill did this against Providence. He got to the rim, just missed a layup and the follow was missed by Michael Finke. Against the Buckeyes, he settled for a three -- the wrong choice.
You have to talk about these situations in practice. It is important to have a go-to play and know what options you have off that play. In a 1-4 flat situation, you have to be ready for the defense to send a double team. This usually comes from a corner and the rest of the defense shifts to the open shooter, leaving the skip pass open to the far corner. If a double team does not come, you want to have some kind of movement to get the defense to lose their man so they can't help on the drive or they miss a blockout assignment. This movement can include the bigs crossing under the rim or a pin down in the corner for a shooter. Whatever your action is, you have to practice it. On that last play, it did not look like the Illini were all on the same page.
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 1/29/16
Ohio State +2
Michigan State +1
Penn State -1