Illini Struggle in 71-59 Victory

Sunday afternoon in Champaign, IL did not go quite the way the Fighting Illini or Bruce Weber hoped it would. Texas – Pan American's zone defense gave the Illini all they could handle. The Broncs held a ten-point lead in the first half, but the Illini came back led by junior Rich McBride. The Illini closed out the half with a 36-32 lead, and extended the lead in the second half to win 71-59. Dee Brown's 20 points led the Illini in scoring, while Brian Randle's 8 rebounds were a team high.

Even if you have not been a long time Illini fan, you can definitely remember the Illini struggling in the past against the zone. In fact, one game where a ton of Illinois fans wanted Bruce Weber's head was the Providence game two years ago when the Friars used a 2-3 zone to completely and utterly frustrate the Illini into submission on national television. To say that was not a bright point in the Bruce Weber tenure at Illinois would be an understatement. Tonight in Champaign, Texas – Pan American through a bevy of different zones at the Illini including a standard 2-3 zone, a funky 1-1-3 trapping zone, a pseudo-matchup 2-3 zone, and then a 3-2 trapping zone as well. After the Illini seemed to get comfortable playing against one of the zones, the Broncs would change the zone and frustrate the Illini offense beyond belief again.

When you combine the offensive struggles of the Illini, with a non-Illini like defensive performance and you have a close game against a team that should not be in it against the Illini. The Illini allowed Pan American to shoot 48.9% from the floor, and pull down 14 offensive rebounds, which is an atypical performance from the Illini. Offensively, the Illini relied way too much on the three point shot, but because they shot 32.4% from behind the arc, they were able to still look like a statistically efficient offense, but they looked more like the Kyle Orton Bears in terms of efficiency than the Peyton Manning Colts.

Offensive Efficiency: 114.00
Defensive Efficiency: 103.65
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 56.1%
Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 50%

It is easy to see where the horrible defensive efficiency came from the Illini, they could not rebound to save their lives on Sunday afternoon. They allowed way too many second chance points, and were not boxing out on the defensive glass. The lack of boxing out was not just the Illini big men, it was also the Illini guards on the weak side. There were many different occasions when I would see an Illini guard lose his man when he is watching the ball instead of both the man and the ball, and then his guy would sneak to the weak side offensive glass, get a rebound, and then put it back in for the Broncs.

It was exactly the opposite for the Illini on their offensive glass. One of the weakest points of a zone defense is the inability for teams to find a man and box them out. Illini sophomore forward Brian Randle was the beneficiary of this numerous times as he used his athleticism to sneak in between the defenders in the zone and jump over them to give the Illini second-chance points. In fact, it was the Illini's stellar offensive rebounding that allowed their offensive efficiency numbers to remain at a high level. If the Illini had not crashed the offensive glass like they did, the game would have been a lot worse than a wake up call win, it would have been a major upset for the Broncs.

With the Illini down 25-19 with 5:22 left on the game clock in the first half, Bruce Weber called on a new lineup to fight the Pan American zone. Weber looked to Dee Brown, Rich McBride, and Chester Frazier on the perimeter with James Augustine and Marcus Arnold on the interior to spark the Fighting Illini, and that is just what they did. In the final 5:22 of the first half, this group of five went on a 17-6 run giving the Illini the lead heading into the intermission. After what I can only assume was a nice solid ass chewing, the Illini came out in the second half with that same lineup on the court. Whether Weber was sending a sign to starters Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt, or just trying to ride a hot lineup I don't know, but in the first twenty minutes of the game, that lineup had been the most effective for the Fighting Illini on the court.

The second half went a lot better than the first half for the Illini, but they still struggled offensively. When the ball moved for the Illini, it was between the perimeter players and not much else. It looked at times like the Illini guards were just tossing the ball back and forth because they did not know what else to do. There were occasions when the ball found its way into the short corner of the zone, but those times were few and far between, and they were even more rarely met by an Illini post man flashing to the high post. The Illini offense was out of sorts for most of the game, entirely due to the Broncs zone defense.

  • Can we burn this tape so no opponents will ever see it? The Illini looked just lost on the court offensively against the zone, and the defense was almost as bad. For how good the Illini looked on Friday night against South Dakota State, the Illini looked just as bad on Sunday afternoon against Pan American. If the word was not out before, the word is definitely out now that if you want to beat Illinois, a zone defense is the way to go, especially if you are a less talented and athletic team than the Illini as the Broncs were.
  • Rich McBride is continuing to be impressive through the second game this season. The Illini junior shooting guard has been playing with confidence in the season's first two games, showing why he was highly recruited out of high school. Rich has had more confidence with his shot, and he has even been driving the ball to the basket. In fact on Sunday, Rich led the Illini in assists with 8, as he was able to find the open teammate on the perimeter, and he was one of the few guards that actually looked to feed the post.
  • Shaun Pruitt was apparently nursing an injured ankle in today's game. After a great performance on Friday night, Shaun was a little sluggish against Pan American. I don't know if it was more the Pan American zone defense, or the ankle injury that Bruce Weber mentioned in the post game, but there was something definitely different about Shaun.
  • Marcus Arnold played a very good 14 minutes for the Illini. Arnold bounced back after a very poor performance against South Dakota State with a 3 point and 3 rebound performance against Pan American, but the statistics did not show what he did well. When he was in the game, the Illini offense worked much better against the zone because he knew which holes to get into, at the high post or in the short corner, and allowed the Illini to score some easy buckets against the zone since the Illini offense was spaced much better.
  • Who thinks Bruce Weber will be working on the zone offense in practice tomorrow afternoon? If he isn't, I am sure he is going to make it a point to remind James Augustine that the high post is not located on the Big Ten Conference logo in the lane.

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