Emphasis on Defense

Coach John Groce turned his attention in practice to improving his team's defense following a subpar second half showing in the loss to Michigan State.

CHAMPAIGN - During film study of Illinois' loss to Michigan State, Coach John Groce showed his team clips of both the good and bad variety.

The positives: the team scored 75 points on 74 possessions, had eight turnovers, took good shots and set up plays effectively.

The negatives: the Spartans shot nearly 88 percent from the field, took 32 free throws and scored 53 points in the second half. Keith Appling scored 24 points as Michigan State went from being down 10 at halftime to up by eight in the first seven minutes of the final period.

Most of all, the film confirmed Groce's thoughts immediately following the game. The high points consisted mostly of offensive mentions with the negatives loaded with strikes against the defensive play.

"Our issues on Thursday weren't on the offensive end," Groce said. "Our issues were on the defensive end."

Even worse, those defensive issues were most evident in the crucial first five minutes of the second half and weren't sured up as the game neared conclusion.

The contrast in Spartan's offensive production from the first half to second was staggering.

Illinois built a double digit lead in the opening half by limiting the Spartans to 42 percent shooting from the field and pushing the offensive attack outside of the paint. The Spartans took 11 3-pointers and attempted only two free throws, scoring 27 points in the game's first 20 minutes.

Everything changed in the second half.

The Spartans focused on the paint, converting easy layups and dunks or getting fouled in the process. Coach Tom Izzo certainly made adjustments at the half, but Groce blamed the uptake in Spartans scoring on his team's defense.

"Defensively we weren't as good. I thought we struggled to guard the ball screen in the second half," he said. "We switched up coverages a couple times and Appling was just too much. He made too many plays. We fouled too much, put them on the foul line and gave them points there."

Offense kept the Illini in the game down the stretch, but any chance for victory was negated by the poor defensive play. The fact that Illinois did a good job defensively in the first half and slipped in such disparaging fashion to end the game only added to the frustration.

"We all have a job to do," senior forward Sam McLaurin said. "It's been a lot of up and downs. We've got to do a better job of keeping our man in front of us. I think that's been the biggest thing that's been inconsistent with us being about to guard and defend."

With three days to prepare for Wisconsin following the latest loss, Groce ramped up the focus on improving the defense. Past struggles on offense were fixed by emphasizing the importance of the little details, such as setting better screens, cutting harder and taking smarter shots.

The attention to the small stuff set the precedent for improving, whether it be on offense or defense.

"We could play better defensively and make it a little more difficult and affect shot percentage," Groce said. "They had too many layups. When you see 88 percent in the second half, the immediate thing I'm thinking as a coach is must have gotten a lot of layups and dunks. Obviously along the baseline we lost vision. I didn't like the way we were rotating on ball screens. We've got to be better there defensively, so that would probably be the main emphasis (against Wisconsin)."

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