The last two games (last four, really) for Illini hoops are my chief exhibits in the case against the motion offense. The ratio is just about right. For every one game where the offense is really clicking (see Gonzaga) you have four games where it’s not. And you risk having a game like the one against UNLV (25% shooting from the field) where the offense is just terrible. The principles of moving without the ball and recognizing opportunities are sound. The idea of hard cuts and solid screens – also sound. But the overall results, and the way the players end up reacting to the motion offense… Well, it’s not good.
We’ve blogged several times with complaints about how the offense tends to get bogged down and predictable – particularly on the backend of the Big 10 schedule, when everyone has seen the tendencies and variations. We had chocked some of that up to the limitations of the players, either the lack of a complete skillset or inability to see the game and change things up. But based on early returns, this year, the past five years, and only one-and-a-half seasons (see Deron, Luther, Dee, James, Roger) for which this offense actually worked, I can say that I no longer want to see Illinois running a straight motion. Here’s my basic reasoning:
- Relies too much on jumpshots – call me old fashioned, but I prefer a classic inside-out offense. You work it down low, force the defense to react and then kick out for jumpers.
- Does not feed the post – if you have a big guy with game, do you want him catching the ball 8 feet from the hoop or setting screens 20 feet from the basket? For years it has appeared Illini players don’t know how to execute a simple post entry pass. And likely they don’t, because they spend their time screening and cutting.
- Puts big guys in poor rebounding positions – again, if your big guys are screening and the guards are shooting from the wings, you find yourself in poor rebounding positions. Illinois has not been a strong offensive rebounding team ever under Coach Weber.
- Does not emphasize driving lanes – with all the off-the-ball movement, spacing issues often close down driving lanes. And you rarely see guys trying to drive and dish early in the shot clock. So between the lack of driving and the jumpshots, you see an Illinois team that rarely shoots many freethrows.
- Seems too difficult for many – Again, unless you have a bunch of veteran or exceptionally savvy players, all it takes is one guy not dialed-in mentally to screw up the offense. Coach has complained over the years about how we’re not executing. In today’s college basketball you need a system that can be grasped by freshmen and sophomores, because you’re going to end up playing these guys.
- Becomes predictable – one of the supposed strengths of the motion is it’s inherent unpredictability. The players are supposed to react to and exploit what the defense gives them. But except for the time in which future NBA All Star Deron Williams was running the team, this never seems to happen. Instead the players start to rely on the two or three little plays they’re comfortable running. This is especially apparent in tight games or games in which the opponent is equal or superior athletically. Case in point: for the last three years the offense came down to the McCamey high-pick-and-fade and the McCamey dribble hand-off play at the end of games. Teams saw this and took it away.
And all these factors combined lead us to those dreaded stretches like we saw against UNLV last Saturday. Guys can’t get open on the wings and they can’t seem to execute a backdoor cut. The high picks are jumped, the post players are screening on the perimeter, and you end up with Brandon Paul, DJ, or Sam taking long contested 3-pointers with shotclock running out.
Perhaps the most damning element of this year’s motion offense is it doesn’t appear to take advantage of the players’ strengths. This year’s team is not a good bunch of jumpshooters. The motion needs jumpshooting like plants need sunlight. And yet, Coach appears to set in his ways to make significant changes. The Illini have athletes in the post and on the wings. These players need down screens, cross screens and isolation plays. So the question becomes – why doesn’t Coach implement some of these plays? He seems pretty good at drawing them up during timeouts… Why not implement a dozen or so set plays while continuing to emphasize motion principles?
We don’t have the answer. We do know that every time the team shoots under 30% or fails to break 50 is another bit of evidence in the case against the motion. Every time Griffey flashes across and doesn’t get the ball, or Leonard is 15 feet from the goal and facing the wrong way to rebound. Every time Brandon Paul jacks up and ill-advised three or the team gets less than ten free throw attempts. These players are frustrated, and sometimes look confused. And you ask yourself – is this good coaching?
Defense may win championships, but you gotta score to get there. So the question is, will Coach Weber see this and adapt or will this ongoing trend of bad offense continue? The competitive part of the schedule begins in earnest Thursday night against Missouri. The Big 10 ain’t great, but it’s tougher than Coppin State and Cornell. So perhaps the real question becomes, if Coach can’t or won’t change, how many more instances of bad offensive execution before AD Mike Thomas takes notice?