Illinois has the potential to be great

Go home, log in to BTN2Go and watch the first five minutes of Saturday’s game in Minneapolis. Then, if you’re up for a gastrointestinal challenge, flip to the final five minutes of the half and note the difference. It’s alarming.

Illinois inexplicably reverted to murky quicksand mode after that opening five-minute stretch. It couldn’t manage to climb out for the duration of the overtime loss at Williams Arena. In nine parts, we’ll look at why that was.

*1) Storming the barn*

In the opening series of possessions, Illinois couldn’t be touched. In a Hollywood portrayal of the span, Mark Few’s press conference praise of Bruce Weber’s offense after the Gonzaga upset would serve as the backdrop. Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard worked the pick and roll to perfection, attacking and creating confusion on the defensive end for Minnesota — a cardinal goal of the motion offense. Perhaps more importantly, it served as a tangible sign that the Illini made good use of their five days of rest and preparation.

*2) Taste of Waco*

The pair looked like Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and lead back Terrance Ganaway playing their trademark extra-close play action routine to perfection (translation: literal headache for the Big 12’s defenses as they processed the many matchup outcomes). Joe Bertrand cut to the basket off a Leonard screen with clinic-worthy ball movement from Paul and Tracy Abrams. D.J. Richardson, who like Paul has struggled with his shot selection this season, curled off a Leonard screen and received a well-timed pass before finding Leonard for an oop off the roll.

*3) Be gone, wanna-three*

The Illini careened out to a 13-6 lead, and, perhaps more importantly, no threes were taken 5:18 into the half. They got the matchups they wanted down low and made Minnesota’s big front line look lost. That, 9-Voiters, is how the motion offense is run. What happened?

*4) Blasé bench*

This team is just good enough to take the form of a veteran squad when its starters are in. This helps explain the dynamite first five minutes of Saturday; Richardson, Abrams, Paul, Bertrand and Leonard can keep up the charade because they’re that talented and can pool together just enough moxy to make it work.

The rest of the squad isn’t quite at that level — and that’s not a slam by any means. Nnanna Egwu and Myke Henry have very bright futures, and Sam Maniscalco is as effective a leader as Illinois has had since Dee Brown. But as the Illini showed Saturday, the offense just isn’t the same when Leonard is out of the game. Once the starters came out, the pick and roll left with it. The superb ball movement that said “Now we get it” turned into the same old Illini routine: three spectators, one timid flash across the free throw line, and a ball handler who drives with blinders on.

*5) Leonard’s absence*

It didn’t take long for the toxic flow-stopping effect to take place, as evidenced by Paul’s thwarted attempt at crashing the basket. With Leonard in the game, that drive is as good as gold. Why? The duo has a knack for making help defenders process a lot of information in a small amount of time (a sub-cardinal rule of the motion offense). Without his running mate and little ball movement to clear him for landing, Paul ran into the human pogo stick known as Rodney Williams, who summarily dismissed Paul’s attempt.

*6) The Run*

The Gophers went on a 10-0 run to lead 18-15, with starters Joe Coleman, Ralph Sampson III and Williams on the bench for a good portion of that run. With Paul forced to make things happen on his own (including a pair of solo drives in traffic with roughly three minutes left in the half), the Illini were without an answer on offense. Whatever lightning the Illini uncorked in the first five minutes was gone.

*7) No magic cure*

Now, one might point to the stretch in the opening minutes of the second half as proof the starting five is far from bulletproof as a unit. I couldn’t agree more — in that stretch, they were every bit as stagnant as any other lineup combination. The ball movement was weak, as was the movement away from the ball. (If I sound like a broken record, then my point is reinforced all the more.)

*8) Stick to the script*

Leonard and Paul continued their masterful defensive performance (final minute aside), but offensively the starters seemed to lose control of their own vehicle. Abrams made a heady drive to the hoop to get fouled, Leonard knocked down a fadeaway 15-footer, and Paul continued to slash. But as I said in my Wisconsin column, improvisation is a dish best served sparingly. If this Illini team is going to build a base layer for a Big Ten championship in the near future, it will be built on the ball movement and off-ball slashing that made Saturday’s first eighth of gametime easy on Illini nation’s eyes.

*9) Final volt*

Can Illinois’ staff successfully navigate the delicate balance

between giving their bench confidence and appropriate playing time?

_Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit._