Illinois looks to corral Marcus Carr, Minnesota in Big Ten season opener

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn shoots the ball during the game against Ohio on Nov. 27.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When Missouri guard Xavier Pinson got into the paint and finished a floater with 54 seconds remaining to give the Tigers a four-point lead, it was a sight Illini fans have become far too familiar with this season: a lead guard scoring on Illinois.

In the past four games, opposing guards have had a ton of success against Illinois. Ohio’s Jason Preston went for 31 points. Baylor’s Davion Mitchell had 15 points and seven assists. And in Saturday’s loss, it was Pinson who went for 17 points, five assists and the crucial late bucket.

If this trend seems familiar with last season, that’s because it is. In a home loss to Miami, Hurricane guard Chris Lykes had 28 points. At Arizona, Nico Mannion torched Illinois for 21 points. In both losses to Maryland, Anthony Cowan had 20 points. Underwood recognizes this but also admits that stopping elite guards is a challenge.

“They’re good guards,” Underwood said. “They’re pros. You can guard the hell out of pros, and they’re still gonna make baskets.”

That being said, Underwood still feels his guards have room to improve. He wants to see them pressure the ball better and really guard. He acknowledged that teams with multiple ball-handlers, like Missouri or Baylor, have given them problems.

One defensive area Underwood has seen improvement in his team’s ball screen defense. After being “atrocious” in that area against Ohio, Underwood said the team has made some tweaks and improved. They have gone away from icing ball screens (trying to force the opponent to go one way) and restored to more traditional drop coverage like they were doing last season. Per Synergy, the Illini are in the 60th percentile of defending against pick-and-roll situations.

A huge piece of that is center Kofi Cockburn, who is typically at the forefront of ball screen actions. Cockburn says resorting to the team’s old methods has helped him simplify his role in those actions.

“The point guard coming down at me, making sure I’m squared up (to him) and not open,” Cockburn said. “Just making sure that my guy doesn’t go behind me, deny the lob and keep the guard in front of me until my guard gets over.”

Defending elite lead guards will be put to the test again on Wednesday night, as Minnesota junior guard Marcus Carr is off to a hot start this year. The Gophers’ 6-0 start is in large part due to Carr averaging 23.5 points per game. Illinois held the All-Big Ten guard to just seven points on 3-for-12 shooting last year, but Carr has looked much improved with an increased role.

“Last year he was a secondary option and they were playing differently because of  (Daniel) Oturu,” Underwood said. “We gotta keep bodies in front of (Carr). We gotta have walls up around him. He’s great when he gets an angle. He’s shooting the ball differently. He’s got the ultimate never-ending dribble.”

Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. central time. The Illini are 6-4 coming off a loss in the past two seasons and are 0-3 in Big Ten openers in Underwood’s tenure.

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