The first half of Sunday's 84-71 win over Minnesota was as bad as I can remember for the Illini -- and that's saying something given what we've seen recently. Illinois fans were scratching their heads as a depleted Minnesota roster without four of its top six scorers due to suspensions jumped to an 11-0 start and a 40-28 lead late in the first half. There was no life on the court. Players showed little effort or pride on either end of the floor. As a former Illini player, it honestly was embarrassing to watch.
Thankfully, the Illini provided us with a different story in the second half. Illini coach John Groce said that at halftime he "explicitly" told the players what he thought about the first half and that he left it up to the players to decide how to change it.
The Illini figured it out. On the very first play of the second half, the Illini executed a screen to set up the hottest player on the court, Jalen Coleman-Lands, for an open three to ignite the offense. The Illini then turned up their defensive pressure. The Illini (13-16, 5-11 Big Ten) sent aggressive post traps down on Jordan Murphy to start the second half. Murphy had 17 points and eight rebounds at the half. Murphy turned the ball over twice early in the second half due to the aggressive traps and was never the same player after that.
When the Illini are locked in on the defensive end, you can always see it in their hand and arm activity. The Illini closed out with high hands on shooters and did not give up any open looks. They also did a good job of always seeing both the man and the ball, getting some deflections and steals from off the ball. In the second half, the Illini had four blocked shots and nine steals, compared to 2 blocks and 4 steals in the first half. Those forced turnovers led to easy buckets on the offensive end (16 second-half points off turnovers).
I also liked the Illini's response to an altercation early in the second half. Murphy landed on Coleman-Lands under the rim, and it was clear Murphy said something to Coleman-Lands as he got up. Kendrick Nunn was right to help up Coleman-Lands and stook up for his teammate, responding with some comments toward Murphy. Nunn didn’t do anything that would get him a technical but seemed to send a message to Murphy that "your high production night is over now." It was a sign that the players were playing with some pride and had each others' back.
When the players take the leadership role, it is always move powerful than when it comes from the coaching staff. The players must hold each other accountable while also having each others' back. In the second half, you could see that the players were energized and playing with pride.
Here's an example of the power of player leadership. While playing for Illinois in 2002, we were going through a tough stretch in our season. We lost a home game for the first time in two years when Michigan State came in our house and simply played with energy. We took a lot of heat from the fans and media at the time. When we traveled to East Lansing a few weeks later, Frank Williams -- known to the younger generation of Illini fans as Da'Monte Williams' dad -- basically told the team in the locker room before the game that we were not going to lose to them at their place. Frank was dominant, we followed his lead and we got revenge on the Spartans. The message is always more powerful and taken more to heart when a player takes the leadership role.
Wisconsin is experiencing the same thing right now. The Badgers got off to a terrible start this year under Bo Ryan and it continued after he retired and interim coach Greg Gard took over. But it was Nigel Hayes who turned the tide, got up and called out his teammates. The Badgers have won 10 of 11 since that Hayes speech. Again, teams respond when players take the lead.
When digesting Sunday's game, it is important to keep in mind that a good half against a two-win Minnesota team without four of their top six players does not mean the Illini have arrived. But it was positive to see the players take the leadership role out of halftime and respond. Now, the Illini need to do it again and that is where this team has really struggled this season. They have not been able to put back-to-back games together since Thanksgiving. The Illini travel to Maryland (23-6, 11-5 Big Ten) next. The Illini don’t have to win the game to gain momentum -- Maryland is superior to them in almost every aspect -- but they need to play with the same effort and pride they showed in the second half against Minnesota. Otherwise, this team still has some soul searching to do.
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 2/28/16
Michigan State +3
Ohio State +2
Penn State -1