The Illini were not expected to win at Maryland, where only one Big Ten team has won the last two years. Illinois went into the game with a good defensive game plan. They approached the game very much like they did their January win against oversized Purdue: pack the lane and send early and aggressive post traps when the Maryland bigs catch the ball. For the first half, it was a great plan. The Illini (13-17, 5-12 Big Ten) held Maryland to 31 points and the Terps (24-6, 12-5 Big Ten) shot 4-12 from three. But in the second half, Maryland caught fire and made 10 of 13 from three and scored 50 second-half points en route to an 81-55 win over the Illini.
The offensive game plan wasn't nearly as successful as the defensive plan. The Illini needed nearly six minutes (5:48) to score their first points. During that drought, the Illini did not get the ball to the post or get into the lane. They settled for jump shots -- like we have seen far too often this season. During the first six minutes, they did not run the same set more than once. At times, the players were standing and pointing at each other to get into the correct position to start the sets. The players were over-thinking and did not seem to be on the same page. The first time the ball made its way into the paint/post, it resulted in an Maverick Morgan layup and the first points of the game.
One of the all-time great movie quotes comes from Coach Herman Boone in “Remember the Titans." When asked about his skinny playbook, he responded with, “I run six plays, split veer. It’s like novocaine. Just give it time, always works." Coach Boone was on to something. Master one thing, instead of being OK at lots of things.
The Illini need to simplify the offense. Shorten the playbook to make sure the players feel comfortable and are on the same page. Putting in a continuity offense would have really helped this team. ave a pattern and a place that you should be at so you don’t have to think and remember lots of plays. Just react when the opening is there.
There are a lot of different options for continuities. It could be as simple as putting in a flex or swing offense. This would allow different players to come off screens for shots. It would encourage and improve ball and body movement. It would give each player a chance to post up. Malcolm Hill Kendrick Nunn and Khalid Lewis are actually really good at scoring around the rim. A dribble-drive offense would give players the chance to come off continuous wing ball screens. The Illini are playing a lot of guards, so this would allow them to play small and keep moving and attacking the lane. If D.J. Williams or Michael Finke are playing the 4 or 5, it would put the opponents in some tough switching situations. This is similar to what we saw out of John Groce in his first season at Illinois. Running a continuous dribble weave could get the players in motion and give them a chance to swing the ball from side to side until they get a favorable matchup and could attack it off the dribble.
The Illini did lose a couple of their bigs this year. But they have played without Mike Thorne and Leron Black since Thanksgiving. You have to adjust and play to your strengths. Last season, Indiana played without a big. They did not defend well and they got beat on the boards, but they would spread you out on the offensive end and were tough to stop. They made it to the NCAA tournament without a true post player for most of the season by playing to their strengths to overcome their weaknesses.
Utah coach Rick Majerus had been running a motion style offense with great success for several years, but during the 2003-04 season, his team struggled. He had a post player by the name of Andrew Bogut on his team. He wanted to get Bogut the ball more and the motion wasn’t getting it done.With a week off in the schedule during the first week of February, Majerus came to Kansas to learn Bill Self’s Hi/Low offense. He spent three full days in Lawrence, watching practice and picking our brains about it. I ate every meal with him and we broke down the offense inside and out when the team wasn’t practicing or watching film. He went back to Utah and put it in. They went 8-3 to close out the season, including a conference tournament championship. This also is how I got a job on his staff four years later at Saint Louis.
This season, Greg Gard took over a team on December 16, and on December 17 he put in a brand new offense. The team was 7-5 at that point. The Badgers are 13-5 since and are tied for second in the Big Ten. The swing offense simplified the system for the players and put them in a position to be successful. It allowed the players to play to their strengths.
The Illini were dealt a tough hand this season with some injuries. But the key to any team is to take advantage of what you are good at. The Illini have good guards. Getting those guards to be in constant motion would be difficult to guard. This is not a team filled with players that can beat you off the bounce in a one-on-one situation, but they can score when giving an advantage. This season, the Illini have lacked an offensive rhythm for far too long not to make big adjustments.
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 3/3/16
Michigan State +4
Ohio State +2
Penn State -2