The Illini started out in this exhibition game differently than I expected as Roger Powell was not in the starting lineup, he was replaced by Jack Ingram. The game started out very sloppy for the Illini who seemed to just be feeling out their opponents and trying to figure out what they could do against them. It seemed like early on the Illini were just toying with Lewis. A three-point shot by Lewis' Steve Turner tied the game at 17-17 with 9:33 left in the first half. That basket signified the end of Lewis being competitive in the game as Illinois went on a 25-6 run to close out the half and headed into the break with a 42-23 lead.
In the second half, the Illini extended their lead on Lewis and then had some fun and showed off for the fans. The Illini were never seriously challenged in this game after the 9:33 mark in the first half, which allowed Bruce Weber to work on different lineup combinations including playing three big men with just two guards, and letting Luther Head run some point guard as both Dee and Deron were on the bench as each half ended.
ILLINI OFFENSE / DEFENSE BY THE NUMBERS
Two stats that I will bring up in every post game article is the Illini's offensive and defensive efficiency. This is basically the number of points the Illini would have scored or allowed in 100 possessions. It is a good way to compare teams who play distinct styles of play, and it will be something discussed often in game recap and preview articles here on IlliniBoard.com as the season goes on.
For tonight the Illini were as dominant as the score shows:
Offensive Efficiency: 124.06
Defensive Efficiency: 83.02
To put these numbers into perspective, as a team last season Illinois had an offensive efficiency of 111.29 and a defensive efficiency of 97.61. Sure, this was just against Lewis University, a Division II school, but it does show how crisp the Illini were able to play outside of the first ten minutes of the game.
Offensively, Illinois only struggled to get good shots on Sunday afternoon under one circumstance, when Lewis went to a zone defense. This should not surprise any fan of Illinois who watched just one team zone the Illini last season, because that is exactly when the Illini offense would come to a screeching halt (see the Providence game last season for evidence proving this point). With Lewis in the zone, the Illinois guards just looked for three point shots, and the Illinois big men seemed to just stand still playing right into the defense's hands.
Beating a zone is simple and can be done in one of two ways: (1) shooting the opposition out of the zone, or (2) crisp solid ball movement and quick cuts to the zones holes, namely by the big men. Illinois relied on method (1) on Sunday afternoon to beat the zone, and it worked because they were hitting their outside shots (the Illini shot 13-31 for 41.9% from behind the arc). The problem is the Illini's outside shot will not always be falling like this, so they will have to rely on method (2) to beat the zone.
The Illini coaching staff knows this, which was why they made comments that they hoped Lewis would play zone against Illinois. They wanted their players tested against a zone defense so they could see how they would react. I will expect the Illini's zone offense will be a point of emphasis in practice at one point or another this week. I would bet if you get the chance to watch Weber run practice you will see him working on a few basic zone fundamentals with both the guards and the big men. The guards will be working on quick skip passes, and finding the open seem in the zone, while the big men will be working on flashing to the high post and the short corner. All of Illinois' big men have the range to be threats at both the high post and the short corner, but they don't all have the confidence to take that shot when they get the ball at these positions. Based on observations from this afternoon and last season only Nick Smith has shown the confidence to catch and shoot from these positions, but all of Illinois' big men will need to do this, especially Roger Powell and James Augustine.
Defensively, I was impressed with how the Illini big men worked for the afternoon. Lewis was basically playing four guards, forcing one of Illinois' big men to guard a quicker player on the perimeter. The Illini big men were able to do this and stay with the quicker Lewis player. The one thing that lacked when a big man was on the perimeter guarding a smaller player was the communication between players. At one point in the game, a big man did not call out a screen for Deron Williams in the back court, and I had a flash back to Maryland Eastern Shore last season and Deron's broken jaw. Obviously this did not happen, but I did see the season flash before my eyes. (Yes, I do worry too much).
PLAYER BY PLAYER ANALYSIS
Deron Williams was Deron Williams on Sunday afternoon. He basically went through the motions and was trying to get his teammates involved. He was never really pressured to do anything on the game, and he more or less just let the game flow to him. He did have two amazing passes, one finding James Augustine in the middle surrounded by Lewis defenders, and one behind the back drop off pass to Dee Brown for a lay up. Other than that, nothing spectacular, and more of what you would expect from him. If there was one thing I could point out that I would have wished he would have done better, I would say he could have taken the ball to the basket more against the zone hitting the creases harder, but it really did not matter on Sunday afternoon.
Dee Brown was Dee Brown on Sunday afternoon. Like his backcourt counterpart, he basically went through the motions and let the game come to him. Dee was key in the in run that closed out the first half and the game as he frustrated Lewis with his speed on defense. He had one steal in the backcourt where his man was trying to pass the ball across the court and he reached out tapped the ball, and converted it into an Illinois score. Like Deron, I would have liked Dee to pressure that zone more with the dribble than just sitting on the outside. Hopefully that is something both guards will learn to do this season when the outside shot is not falling.
In his four years at Illinois Luther has turned into a very good shooter for the Fighting Illini. I remember when he started at Illinois all he could do was jump, now he is a true threat from behind the arc. On Sunday afternoon he further stamped that fact in as he hit four of ten from behind the line against the Lewis zone.
One of the more interesting experiments that Bruce Weber did on Sunday afternoon was getting Luther work at the point guard position. With only four guards on the roster, Weber will have to work some time in for Luther to run the point in case he is needed to do it later on in the season out of necessity. In the past, I have cringed when Luther was bringing the ball up the court, because he just seems so careless with it, but at least on Sunday he seemed to be more careful with the ball. While it was still not to my liking, I hope Weber uses a few more of these early season match ups to get Luther in game experience running the team on the off chance that both Dee and Deron need to be on the bench for any period of time.
I was looking for one thing from James this afternoon, offensive confidence. At times he showed it with some solid baseline moves, while other times he just would not pull the trigger and take the shot. I know James can make the baseline jump shot from the short corner and fifteen feet, but he seems too hesitant to take that shot. If James takes that shot and consistently makes it, he will be an extremely hard player to defend. This shot, along with a go to post move may be the key to Illinois' season. Yes, I know I am putting a lot of pressure on James Augustine, but a low post scoring presence would make a world of difference for Illinois.
On the good side, James continues to show that he will be solid free throw shooter as he hit four of five from the line. He also was much more aggressive on the glass on both sides of the court with tips to himself and teammates as he went over the top of the much smaller Lewis player. The one steal James had occurred at half court as he was guarding a smaller player; he took the ball and went the length of the court to finish with a slam dunk. The post move of the night also went to James as he made a spin from the right block underneath the basket to an easy left handed reverse lay up. The more Illinois fans see that move, the better it will be for the Fighting Illini.
Jack Ingram received his first start in an Illini uniform on Sunday afternoon as he replaced Roger Powell in the starting lineup. Jack did just what he has shown he can do over the last year; give Illinois solid minutes on the inside on both sides of the court. There was nothing that overtly stood out in his play either good or bad, he was just himself on the court.
Bruce Weber tried Warren at both the three and four positions on the afternoon and with various other post players in the game to see how things meshed. If there is one thing Warren does it is ooze with athleticism. As I watched him on the court, I would just imagine what he could do if he were able to harness that athleticism into complete basketball skills. There were times he showed he could as he jumped twice going after a rebound before any one else seemed to jump once.
When Warren was played at the three position, he showed the ability to hit the mid range jump shot, but he also struggled defensively, especially with his off the ball positioning. Against Lewis this really did not matter as he could just out quick the guy and out jump a shooter to get a hand in their face and distract the opponent, but against better competition this will matter. Hopefully, Bruce Weber will be able to work Warren into many of the early season games, so he can provide some valuable minutes against teams like Wake Forest and Missouri before conference season.
Roger Powell, Jr.
As Bruce Weber was working with the lineups in an effort to find that mix now that Brian Randle is out of action, Roger Powell, Jr. was one of the other players who Weber tried at both the three and the four. Roger has already played both positions in his Illinois career, so being moved around was nothing new to him. He rolled with the punches and played just like you would expect from Roger.
The loudest cheer from the Orange Krush on Sunday afternoon was directed at Nick Smith as the Illinois student section chanted "Chainsaw!" after every good play from the senior center. While normally people will think of Rich McBride as the Illini zone buster, there is no better player on the Fighting Illini roster at breaking a zone than Nick Smith. He knows right where to go and what to do as a center to break the zone. He will always find the hole, be it at the short corner or the high post, and make himself a target for the Illini guards. On Sunday, he was the only big man who seemed to understand what to do when Lewis zoned the Illini.
Outside of his work when the Illini were getting zoned, Nick was very solid on the afternoon. He was sealing out on the defense glass (he led Illinois with seven defensive rebounds) and he was a general bother for the much smaller offensive players.
Rich is Illinois' first guard off the bench and he is known at this point in his college career as a sharpshooter. It also seems like that is all he wants to be on the court, which is disappointing, especially those that used to see him play in high school. I am waiting for Rich to make a move with the basketball that includes a pump fake and a drive to the lane, but he just does not seem to want to do that. There were numerous opportunities for him to do that on Sunday afternoon and he didn't. An offensively aggressive Rich McBride makes Illinois' back court that much better, and hopefully he can regain some of the confidence in himself to do that.
One of the things I wanted to do on Sunday afternoon was watch Shaun Pruitt closely when he was in the game. The first time he received the ball on the block, he made a quick post move and scored with a left handed jump shot and the foul, a definite good sign. Other than that, there was nothing specific that stood out in his nine minutes of play. He was not in great defensive position, but I also don't know a freshman that is every ready at this point in the game to play defense.
- Before the game, the Illinois players and coaching staff raised its 2004 Big Ten Championship banner.