Column | Illinois men’s basketball needs to use Big Ten Tournament to fix regular-season struggles

Guard+Alfonso+Plummer+attempts+to+block+a+shot+during+the+Big+Ten+Championship+against+Iowa+on+Sunday.+Sports+On-Air+Editor%2C+Josh+Pietsch%2C+discusses+improvements+the+mens+basketball+team+could+make+for+the+Big+Ten+Tournament.+

Cameron Krasucki

Guard Alfonso Plummer attempts to block a shot during the Big Ten Championship against Iowa on Sunday. Sports On-Air Editor, Josh Pietsch, discusses improvements the men’s basketball team could make for the Big Ten Tournament.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

After 20 hard-fought conference games, the Illini came out of the Big Ten regular season with a share of the conference title and will be the No. 1 seed entering this weekend’s tournament. Despite being conference champs, there are still a few noticeable problems that could lead Illinois to an early exit in the NCAA tournament.

To credit head coach Brad Underwood, he was able to lead his team to a conference title despite dealing with multiple key players being injured and rarely having a full, healthy lineup to work with. Because of this, Illinois didn’t have as much time to find its groove as other teams did, but still came out on top of the conference.

Illinois should enter the NCAA tournament no lower than a No. 4 seed, and it could potentially reach as high as a No. 2 seed if it wins the tournament. Regardless of the ranking, each game the Illini play will be a challenge.

Some of the main issues I saw throughout the year were long scoring droughts, allowing other teams’ stars to dominate, and struggling to keep big leads in the second half. My hope for the Illini is that they’ll use the Big Ten Tournament to work on these things so that they’re fully prepared for the NCAA tournament.

Staying consistent offensively

Everyone who watched the Illini closely this year knows that one of their flaws was going on long scoring droughts. These droughts either allowed the opposing team to extend their lead or get back in a game they shouldn’t be in. Either way, it wasn’t good.

During these droughts, the Illini were forced into tough outside shots, would turn the ball over too much and looked out of sync all around. Sometimes teams have a few good possessions in a row, but I think Illinois has too many weapons for this to happen so often, starting with junior center Kofi Cockburn.

When Kofi’s doing poorly, he keeps the ball too low, turns the ball over, takes a terrible contested shot or some sort of combination of the three. This usually happens when the other team begins to double-team him, usually with two long defenders.

I’ll credit Cockburn in that his passing to outside shooters has improved this year when faced with a double-team, but when two long defenders are on him, he panics and makes poor decisions. Illinois is likely to face at least two strong big men in the Big Ten Tournament if they win a couple games, so Cockburn will have a great chance to work on this.

If Kofi can find a shooter outside when a double-team comes, the Illini are practically impossible to stop. With fifth-year senior Trent Frazier, graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer, fifth-year senior guard Da’Monte Williams, graduate student forward Jacob Grandison or one of Illinois’ other shooters all on the floor with Kofi, there is no good double-team option. So, if he can pass effectively out of the double-team and Illinois’ shooters do their thing, the odds of these scoring droughts are much less likely. I hope Kofi can work on this over the weekend.

One teammate of Kofi’s that isn’t as good a shooter, whom he often shares the court with, is sophomore guard Andre Curbelo. Curbelo has missed more game time than any now-healthy Illini, and when he’s on, he is the ultimate facilitator. When he’s bad, he’s often responsible for some of the turnovers that happen during these droughts, or he’s taking inefficient jumpers.

However, Curbelo seems to be finding his groove, and despite not being as good a shooter, he gives Illinois a different look offensively since he’s such a good passer. And, he can make floaters and turnaround jumpers inside 10 feet.

Curbelo has finally been healthy for a while, so if he could limit his turnovers, have a better shot selection and help get Kofi and his sharpshooting teammates open more consistently, Illinois will be a lot more dangerous and less prone to scoring droughts.

For Frazier, Plummer and the rest of the shooters, they just can’t force tough shots to try and break a team slump. Drive into the lane, move without the ball or simply don’t take a hand-in-the-face shot just to get something off. Of course, if you’re taking good shots that just aren’t going down, there’s not much you can do. But taking contested shots is a tough way to get out of a slump.

Illinois can play up to three games in the Big Ten Tournament, so it has the opportunity to really work on its offense against some good competition to warm up for later in March.

Defensive matchups/adjustments

The Big Ten has lots of talented players, from guards, to wing players up to the center position. It’s part of the reason Underwood often calls the Big Ten the best conference in the country. Regardless of whether that’s true, Illinois does get faced with having to defend some really talented players just about every game.

Notable players that had big games against Illinois in conference play were Zach Edey, Jaden Ivey, Malaki Branham, E.J. Liddell, Johnny Davis, Keegan Murray, DeVante Jones and Donta Scott. Of course, these stars having big games is no surprise, but some of them are the reason Illinois lost big games.

Other than Edey, there aren’t many post-dominant big men that had big games against Illinois. I criticize Kofi a lot for his perimeter defense, but his inside work defensively has been good. It’s the wings and some guards that really killed Illinois.

One All-Big Ten member that isn’t on this list is Ron Harper Jr., who was nearly invisible against Illinois the first time it played Rutgers and had 16 the next game. Harper was held in tact, especially the first time around, because Underwood put sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins as his primary defender. Hawkins may be skinny, but his 6-foot-10-inch height really helps him cover good stretch fours and other wings.

The other Illini who often starts the game on these wings is Williams, who is a very good defender. However, he’s only 6-foot-3-inches, so he naturally struggles against guys 6-feet-6-inches and up. It’s not all his fault, but his height hurts him. Williams was the primary defender on Liddell against Ohio State, Davis against Wisconsin and split time on Murray against Iowa.

Johnny Davis was recently named the Big Ten Player of the Year, and he can create ways to score on pretty much every defender he faces. Hawkins would be a better fit to cover him, in my opinion, but I think Davis will always get his 20-point night unless he’s really struggling.

However, I want to take a closer look at Illinois’ games against Ohio State and Iowa in the later part of the schedule, starting with the Buckeyes. Liddell, who stands at 6-feet-7-inches, scored 21 against the Illini, really getting going in the second half and hit a couple huge, tough shots near the end of the game to help his team stay ahead. His primary defender was Williams.

When Da’Monte wasn’t in the game, though, Hawkins covered him. And did a good job. His length forced Liddell into tougher shots, and though he did hit one on Coleman late, it was against very tough defense. When Williams and Hawkins were in the game together, though, Da’Monte stayed on him. I don’t understand this decision.

Harper Jr. is similar to Liddell in that he is a great shooter and can hit in the mid-range as well. Since Hawkins did such a good job on Harper, wouldn’t he do a good job on Liddell, too? Well, he did, when he was on him.

Keegan Murray of Iowa scored 22 in the State Farm Center this past Sunday, while Da’Monte and Coleman split time on the 6-foot-8-inch forward. Again, just like Harper and Liddell, he can shoot the ball well and has a good mid-range game, too.

When Hawkins was covering Murray, he made just two shots on inefficient shooting. That wasn’t the case for Da’Monte.

Grandison could potentially be out for the Big Ten Tournament, which will likely slide Coleman into the starting position again. If this is the case, Brad should put Coleman on the opponents’ best wing/stretch four, and if his defense continues to impress, keep his assignment entering the NCAA tournament.

As for the guards, guys like Jaden Ivey and Malaki Branham stand out to me because they’re big. Ivey is 6-feet-4-inches and Branham is 6-feet-5-inches, and as great a defender as Trent Frazier is, his 6-foot-2-inch height isn’t doing him any favors against these guys. Ivey is going to be a lottery pick and is almost impossible to stop when he’s on, but I still think a better defensive matchup could help Illinois.

The matchup I really want to look at was the Ohio State game against Branham. The skilled freshman went off for 31 against Illinois, and he was primarily covered by Trent. However, right around the time Underwood went and got himself ejected, Grandison started covering Branham. He only scored four points the rest of the way.

I don’t know if this was a result of one of the assistant coaches or Brad, but either way, it worked. I know Trent is a great defender, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he deserved his Big Ten All-Defensive Team nod, but he struggles a lot against these bigger guards. Jalen Pickett of Penn State troubled Frazier as well.

Grandison (if he’s healthy) or Williams, to me, would be a much better matchup for these bigger guards. Williams struggled against Ivey, too, but I still think he or Grandison is better fit to cover talented, big guards that can score in multiple ways.

Plummer is the second leading scorer on the team, but sometimes it seems like he’s giving up almost as much as he scores. Iowa seemed to target Plummer in the first half when the Hawkeyes went on a scoring run.

Plummer has to be hidden on the other team’s worst scorer at all times. And, when he’s ineffective offensively, he can’t be in the game. Brad has only played Plummer slightly over 20 minutes when he’s had 20+ points because of his defense, which is great. But teams benefit off Plummer at times, so it’ll be interesting to see if Underwood has a better plan for when that happens.

No matter which team Illinois plays in the BTT, it will face a big scoring threat, and I’d like to see the Illini contained better to prepare for tough matchups in the next tournament.

Holding onto leads

In games this year against Marquette, Cincinnati, Arizona, Michigan State (twice), Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State, Illinois has gone up by double-digits at some point, then either lost the game or made it too close for comfort. Basketball is a game of ups and downs, but the fact that this happens so often is concerning.

I think this issue goes hand-in-hand with the scoring droughts, but it also probably has to do with keeping your foot on the gas. No team should ever get too comfortable, especially in a league like the Big Ten where there really isn’t an uncompetitive team in the whole conference.

The Illini need to start playing more aggressive when they’re up big, because they’ve learned this year against Marquette, Cincinnati, Arizona, Purdue and Ohio State that double-digit leads mean nothing if you don’t finish strong. I hope if the offense stays more consistent and defensively some things are changed that this will take care of itself, but I hope Illinois can take a big lead and never look back in this BTT.

With the regular season done, as Trent Frazier has said, it’s time to turn the page. To win a conference championship was an impressive and well-deserved accomplishment, but the postseason starts now.

Illinois has as many as three games to prepare for what will be an exciting NCAA tournament, and my hope is that the Illini work on some of the problems that occurred during the regular season to set themselves up for what could be a very fun few weeks.

 

@JPietsch14