Piper: Bye week tweaks for Illini hoops

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down some focus points for the Illini on the practice court during their week off until Saturday's game.

The Illini have nearly a week off from games between Super Bowl Sunday's defeat at home against Iowa to this Saturday's trip up to Evanston.

A bye week, as you could call it, is coming at a good time for John Groce and his program.

Illinois (11-13, 3-8) doesn't need to worry about preparing for a stretch run to the NCAA tournament and beyond. But the final three and a half weeks of the regular season are still of supreme importance for this staff.

While it is certainly going to be difficult to evaluate Groce on this season, the aftertaste - which will be determined on how the Illini finish - is going to play a factor in perception. It will tell you which way the arrow is pointing.

Right now, there a variety of areas to focus on. Illinois was essentially beaten in every facet by No. 4 Iowa during the 77-65 takedown. None of that came as much of a surprise given the Hawkeyes' soaring success and Illinois' banged-up blues.

But there are three big fix-its from that game that you can work on this week.

1. Experiment with a five-scorer lineup.

The Illini offense has not looked great as a whole over the last three-plus weeks. They have scored below 70 in regulation in six of their last seven games, while shooting a combined 37.9 percent during those 12 halves. The triple-digit outing in triple overtime against Rutgers last week is of course the exception, but defense often appeared optional in a matchup of the two worst defensive units in the Big Ten.

Sunday was a prime example of what has often been hurting the Orange and Blue at that end of the floor. Malcolm Hill had a sound game with 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists and just one turnover. Maverick Morgan did his part with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting, while Jalen Coleman-Lands stepped up to hit five threes. Kendrick Nunn (2-of-13) wasn't his usual self, and that certainly played a factor.

But Nunn has been good more often than not. That can't necessarily be said for the Illini point guard spot. Between home losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate combined for two points in 85 minutes between them. Lewis stepped up with nine points and eight assists against Rutgers. But Sunday was a step back into normalcy. Lewis started and played 30 minutes - finishing with two points (1-of-5), three assists and two turnovers. He missed a handful of easy ones.

Meanwhile, Tate played 10 minutes with no points (0-of-2) and three assists. Illinois' point guards have been able to dish it out this season. But their scoring flaws are crippling. Hill only got off nine shots against the Hawkeyes, who doubled often and had help-side defense at every turn. The Illini put Hill at the top of some sets in the lead guard role, but Iowa could easily sag off Tate and Lewis to add another defender on Hill.

Groce said after Sunday's game that he has confidence in his point guards and they know what they're being asked to do. But why not play stretches of the game with a lineup that doesn't have a major scoring liability on the floor? Hill has already played some point. Coleman-Lands is a capable ball-handler as well - and it's not like this is an offense that runs on complicated sets.

Yes, Illinois is limited with rotations due to injury. Sure, putting Hill or Coleman-Lands at the one could provide defensive challenges or lead to more turnovers. But it can be related to being an offensive coordinator in football. Why not throw in a different formation with some higher risk and higher upside if what you're doing over and over provides the same results? At least give the other side something they need to adjust to.

1 - Hill
2 - JCL
3 - Nunn
4 - D.J. Williams
5 - Michael Finke

1 - Hill
2 - JCL
3 - Nunn
4 - Finke
5 - Morgan

1 - JCL
2 - Nunn
3 - Hill
4 - Finke/Williams
5 - Morgan/Finke

Try them. Try one. Try something. You're two games under .500 and tied for 11th in the Big Ten standings. What is there to lose? If the defense cheats with this lineup, they'll actually pay for it.

2. Improve rebounding effort.

Rebounding has been a continuous issue for the Illini, as they have been outrebounded in 10 of their 11 Big Ten games. Having Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black sidelined has been a huge obstacle to overcome. Black, who was the conference's top returning rebounder per minute played, has not played in a Big Ten game this season. Thorne has played in only one Big Ten game, and he totaled nine rebounds in 16 minutes at Indiana.

It's possible that Thorne could return soon. He might even suit up at Northwestern on Saturday. But the Illini need to find ways to improve the effort regardless.

On Sunday, Iowa outrebounded the Illinois 43-to-32, and they scored 26 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds. Take away half of those points and it's an entirely different game. Obviously, that is easier said than done. Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said that he didn't see the Illini attacking the offensive glass at full force, as they were concerned about the Hawkeyes' transition game.

That will be less of a factor against Northwestern, who isn't known for playing at a fast pace. The Wildcats' adjusted tempo ranks No. 334 of 351 D-1 teams. This gives the Illini an opportunity to be more aggressive, and Groce said he'd like to see his guards contribute more on the glass. As a whole, he'd also like his team to be more consistent when it comes to boxing out.

"I think Morgan is a guy that does a really good job of engaging his guy's body. He takes his guy out a lot. Some of us others got to swoop in there and get 'em," Groce said on Sunday. "A lot of times with some of the teams I've coaches, the guards can be the leading defensive rebounders because most of the time they're not engaging guys - their guy is getting back."

Hill led the Illini with eight defensive rebounds on Sunday. The junior forward has 123 defensive rebounds on the season, which is more than Finke (57) and Morgan (48) combined. Nunn is second on the team with 92 defensive rebounds in just 18 games.

Morgan had six defensive boards against Iowa in 27 minutes. That's not bad for him. But Nunn had just three in 26 minutes. Coleman-Lands had one in 26 minutes, and Finke also had one in 17 minutes.

"We need contributions from everybody there. We've got to gang rebound," Groce said.

That has been a phrase that Groce has used repeatedly. A big part of the problem goes beyond strategy and rebounding drills in practice. But the Illini have to see what changes can be made to do more with have they have at their disposal.

3. Get guys healthy.

The Illini have been trying to do this since the summer. Father Time and Lady Luck are really the only fixes.

Groce said on Sunday that he would likely give his guys two days off from physical exertion at the beginning of this week. That is certainly much-needed. The Illini need Nunn to get healthy in a hurry after playing through a hip contusion. He hasn't looked the same since suffering that injury against Wisconsin, and he's shot just 10-of-40 from the field in the last three games.

The time in between games will be beneficial for Finke as well. He returned to action on Sunday after missing the game against Rutgers with a knee contusion. Finke had five points and four rebounds against Iowa. As each opposing coach will tell you, having Finke on the floor presents a challenge for the defense.

This could also be the point when Thorne works his way back onto the court. The big man has missed five straight games since playing at Indiana. By playing in that game, Thorne burned his opportunity to apply for a medical redshirt to obtain a sixth year of eligibility. The Illini hope that wasn't for naught.

The Illini are guaranteed eight more games on the schedule when you include the Big Ten tournament. As we saw in Bloomington, having Thorne on the court - even less than 100 percent - is a significant boost in the paint.

Illinois has to use this time to prepare and recover so they can give an energized and well-executed effort at Northwestern and beyond. After six days in between games, the Illini will play their final seven regular season games in a span of 22 days.


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