Thanks to a forgiving group of bubble teams and fewer than the average mid-major aspirants, Bruce Weber and the Fighting Illini have another chance to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s simple: beat Wisconsin today and look forward to drawing a tough first round opponent next week. If the Orange & Blue can pull that off they’d have six wins against Top 25 teams and a firm grasp on the Big 10’s 5th slot in the tourney. Lose and hello NIT. How dramatic.
Of course Illinois wouldn’t be in this predicament if they’d only managed to beat Minnesota at home a couple of weeks ago. Or Northwestern up north. Or Gonzaga at the United Center (right down to the end, that one). Or any of the three non-conference games that really hurt: Georgia, Utah, or Bradley. That’s a lot of potential wins left on the table.
So beat the Badgers. Couldn’t do it last weekend at home, and frankly the Illini seem to have hit their traditional end-of-the-season wall. This is when the motion offense becomes predictable, as the team only seems to run 4 or 5 plays, and so well-scouted by the other teams that offensive production declines. Coach shortens the bench and becomes too dependent on 6 or 7 players, many of whom are fatigued or have minor injuries. It’s a tough task today. So how to go about it?
- Make shots. The Northwestern student section sported T-shirts earlier this year, that said ‘Make Shot’. Simple yet poignant. When your team hits shots, other things seem to fall into place. Against Wisconsin, you will get jumpers because they like to pack it in and crowd the driving lanes. They will once again key on McCamey, so it’s up to DJ, Cole, Brandon Paul, or Mike Davis to get hot and hit shots. If the Illini can hit about 40% or better from 3-point range, I like their chances.
- Rebound. Last weekend the Wisconsin guards tracked down all kinds of loose balls and rebounds. They seemed much quicker to the ball and more aggressive. This has been a weakness for Illinois all year – lack of toughness and aggressiveness. You can’t depend on Mike Davis to grab all the boards; other guys will need to screen out and go after the ball. The Badgers are too efficient to give up too many second chances.
- Change it up. As we’ve often documented here, Coach Weber runs his system with a stubborn degree of inflexibility. This means motion and man-to-man. Well, that wasn’t good enough last weekend, and it probably won’t be enough today. So then, adjust. Do something a little different. Run some 2-3 or zone trap to get the Badgers out of their rhythm. Throw on a press. Run a couple of set plays. If the Illini can throw in a few wrinkles, maybe it gets the opponent out of their comfort zone, sparks a run, etc. Do we think this will happen? Not really. Coach seems to equate any variation from his system with “giving in”, instead of with adapting tactics to win. This continues to be a weakness of his strategic philosophy, but maybe today’s the day he makes the change.