Davion Mitchell, Baylor defense suffocate Illinois on offense

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Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Ayo Dosunmu tries to dribble past a Baylor defender on Wednesday night in Indianapolis. The Bears defense locked down the Illini and Dosunmu in Illinois’ loss.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu rarely seems flustered. The preseason All-American carries himself with a cool demeanor on the court, and a confidence that presents itself in late-game situations.

But on Wednesday night in Indianapolis, Dosunmu struggled to look like the Dosunmu of the first three games. The Chicago native started the contest 1-8 and never seemed to find a rhythm. He finished with 18 points on 6-18 shooting, but several of those buckets came with the game out of reach. Dosunmu’s struggles can be attributed to Baylor’s team defense. The Bears finished fourth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. They switched all Illinois dribble hand-offs and would double Dosunmu on ball-screens.

Baylor’s collective defensive effort was impressive, but it was junior guard Davion Mitchell who drove that engine. Mitchell, who was named to the All-Big 12 defensive team as a sophomore, used his length and energy to disrupt Illinois guards all night, including Dosunmu.

Mitchell owns the nickname “Off Day” from people around the Baylor program for the defensive work he does against elite guards. Last season, Mitchell held former Iowa State guard and No. 12 pick Tyrese Haliburton to six points on 2-12 shooting. He contained Arizona forward and No. 18 pick Josh Green to eight points on 3-9 shooting. So it comes as no surprise that “Off Day” was at it again in Indianapolis.

“We won’t face a defender all year, is my guess, like Mitchell,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “Mitchell was the MVP of the game. He never missed a call, he never missed an assignment. He’s so strong, so athletic.”

Heading into the under-12 minute media timeout, Underwood’s squad was very much in the game, only trailing by four. The Bears came out in 1-2-2 three quarters court press. Illinois guard Trent Frazier had the ball on the right side of the back court and stared down guard Andre Curblo who was standing by halfcourt. Frazier fired a pass to the freshman, assuming he was open. But Frazier thought wrong, as Mitchell used his closing speed to creep up and intercept the pass, leading to a Baylor layup. This helped spark an 18-8 run that ultimately put the Illini away.

Baylor found their offensive rhythm during this run, making six straight shots at one point. But the hard-nosed Mitchell believes it’s defense that got them going.

“It started with the defensive end,” Mitchell said to reporters after the game Wednesday. “Getting stops and getting in transition and sharing the ball like we’ve been talking about. I think it really hurt them when we started getting dunks and sharing the ball and getting open threes. We knew they’d tap out eventually.”

For Illinois, this game served as a wake up call. While they were able to compete, for thirty minutes of gameplay, Baylor showed that you can’t have any lapses. The Illini defense was quite competent themselves for the most part, holding the Bears to under 50% from the field and limiting them to just 7-18 from three.

But forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili realized if they want to be Final Four champs, they have to have the defensive mentality Baylor did during that game-altering run.

“They fought for 40 minutes straight,” Bezhanishvili said. “They never gave up. They just played like dogs for 40 straight minutes, not a minute less. That’s what they do.”

Underwood noted that Illinois won’t see a defensive team like Baylor again. Dosunmu won’t be tasked with such daunting defensive opponents come Big Ten play. But if anything, this game served as a preview of what an NCAA Tournament game might look like. If Dosunmu is able to pull through in March, then Davion Mitchell’s defense against him will have been a valuable learning experience.

@BrandonSimberg

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