It was bound to happen at some point: the first loss of the John Groce era. 81-73 to Missouri at the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis. Illinois’ couldn’t match Missouri’s frontcourt on the boards, couldn’t stop Phil Pressey off the dribble, and the guards couldn’t make shots. Taking those factors into account, it’s surprising the Illini actually led in the final 10 minutes and were tied with about 2 minutes to play.
As I told my brother afterwards, I’d gladly trade any of the first 12 wins for a win in St. Louis, but for the fourth straight year, it’s the Tiggers who are bragging. Mizzou is a probably a legit Top 10 team based on their size and athleticism. And Pressey is probably the best pure penetrating-point in the college game. So as all the sports writers have said today – no shame in losing to them. We disagree. It’s always bad to lose to Missouri in St. Louis. This game matters more than most. But the real shame of it is the lack of execution by the Orange and Blue. And so our Pentagram analysis will focus on the whys and hows of this.
- Guards 10-40 from the field, 3-20 from three. This is the biggest reason for the loss. If DJ, Brandon and Tracy hit at their normal clip, the orange team wins. Easy. Credit Mizzou’s length and quickness for some of this, but the guards were getting quality looks – especially the first 10 minutes that just weren’t going in. Later, in the pivotal final eight minutes, Brandon and DJ especially were forced into too many fade-aways and off-balance jumpers. The biggest reason was probably not enough extra passes out of the high pick-and-roll. The defense was running hard at those screens and earlier passes out of that would have led to a little more space and a little more rhythm for those jumpshots. DJ and Tracy seemed like they were pressing, harried. Also, it wouldn’t hurt these guards to actually throw it into the post once in awhile. Keeps the other team honest and adds other passing and shooting lanes to the mix
- Outrebounded 58-35. If the Illini cut that margin in half, even with the poor shooting from the guards, the orange team wins. Now the Tigers are very big and strong up front, but they won’t be the last beefy team on the schedule. Certainly Groce and his staff will emphasize this point – you may not be able to control how well you’re shooting, but you can damn sure rebound. Egwu and McLaurin fought hard in there, but Griffey and the guards needed to start their block outs much higher. Too many times, the Tiggers just pushed out guys too far under the basket. Some of that was a result of collapsing on Pressey’s drives, but we can surely do a better job of boxing out earlier and higher in the play.
- Defense on Pressey. If the Illini can stop Pressey at the end of the game, the orange team wins. Now Pressey is probably the best in the country at the dribble drive and dish. But he’s no shooter. He missed his first twelve shots or so. Yet he dictated the end of that game. Illinois did a good job of finding him early and preventing transition looks (except at the very end). The real problem was off the high picks and splitting the double teams. Pressey beat the hedge and beat the double like a drum, and yet we continued to do it. If he can’t shoot (and he couldn’t last night), why not duck behind the high screen, give him a cushion, and oblige him to shoot jumpers? This is certainly one of those execution points Groce and the staff will examine. Because other teams on the schedule (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State) have point guards who will cause similar troubles.
- Not enough good passing from drives. While Pressey was dishing out dimes from his drives, the Illini guards were bustling towards the basket and chucking it. Not enough good passes. Brandon Paul has never really been able to figure this out; he puts his head down and it’s pretty much going up or kicking out to the wing. Tracy Abrams still has time to add this dimension, though. The pickers were often open when they rolled. Egwu and McLaurin had pockets to catch the ball on the weak side. So it’s there. Some of this is trust. The guards need to trust these guys to finish plays. But some of it is the offense, which can look too much one-on-one if the guards can’t make better decisions. Perhaps if Groce implements more cross screens on the low blocks to free the big guys up, the lanes will stay open longer. Maybe we just have to hope Abrams continues to mature and increase his passing ability.
- Get Joe more scoring looks. Joseph Bertrand kept the Illini in the game when Mizzou looked poised for a run early in the second half. He made three straight buckets and then assisted on a fourth. Joe is streaky, so he can sometimes flatter to deceive, but we really feel he needs to be more integral to the offense. If Brandon Paul is Option 1, quality threes from penetration are Option 2, Joe B needs to be Option 3. They need to set him up as soon as he comes in and get him going. He shoots a high percentage and doesn’t take many bad shots. He also passes pretty well from the wing and will actually feed the post. Some will say that Joe should be starting, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a counterargument there. Other than, starting is not as important as minutes and finishing games, and Joe is more likely to contribute off the bench than DJ or Tracy in that role. When he’s in, lets run more plays for him.