The scouting report on John Groce’s Illini is in, and the best conference in the country will now take full advantage. Hit them hard early and keep hitting them. Against Minnesota a karate chop to Brandon Paul’s nose sent him to the locker room for about ten minutes to stop the bleeding. At Madison yesterday, Wisconsin gashed Tyler Griffey above the eye and he needed stitches.
In three Big 10 losses (including the last two games) the opponents have been physical from the opening tip and Illinois hasn’t responded. The shooting has been awful, rebounding a joke, and the defense has regressed. We’ve seen this before. Most recently in last season’s memorable collapse.
Part of this is the inevitable ebb and flow of a season – particularly a perimeter oriented team in a bruising conference like the B1G. Part of it is identified player deficiencies that that better level of coaching in conference play always seems to hone in on. But how much of it is attitude and response by the players and coaches? We will soon find out.
The younger players have attempted to answer the physicality-bell by overcompensating. Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu both got into foul trouble against the weaselide duo of Gophers and Badgers, trying to play hard and establish their presence but only allowing themselves to be baited into dumb plays by veteran players. And also the refs kind of sucked.
Veteran players like Paul, Griffey, and DJ Richardson have mostly responded by going soft. They shoot contested 3-pointers and mostly forget to rebound. Meanwhile, Sam McLaurin is realizing he’s not in the Mid-majors any more and Joe Bertrand is wondering why his teammates seem to stand around so much.
Again, we’ve see this before.
A lot of the blame has to go to Brandon Paul. He’s the team’s best player, and if he gets the lion’s share of credit when the Illini were playing so well earlier, he gets called out now. Yesterday was probably his worst game of the year. He was entirely too passive from the beginning, which contributed greatly to the Badgers’ 14-0 start. He still tends to force the issue at bad times and may never really pass from a driving lane with any effectiveness.
But Brandon needs some help. He needs Abrams on the floor to create and force defenders to react. He needs DJ to not miss his first five shots… Most importantly, BP3 needs some variation on the high ball screen.
Ah, yes – coaching. Groce’s offense has been thoroughly vetted, its tendencies analyzed and plotted. If Weber’s offense was guilty of over-passing and over-complexity, Groce’s seems almost the opposite. We only seem to have about two plays, and they both come from high ball screens. And this over-simplicity led to a lowly two assists (two assists!) against Wisconsin. Surely some kind of record for poor passing and execution. Other teams know if you hedge hard and bump the wings, our boys struggle.
Time for a response. Time for a counterpunch.
Weber’s coaching staff responded to stiff headwinds by doubling down on defense and rebounding and continuing to run the same offensive sets (again and again and again…) So now it’s Groce’s turn. He will surely double down on defense and rebounding as well, but can he get the adjustments installed to waken the suddenly floundering offense? Can he get this group of seniors to play with intensity for sustained periods every game? Here are a few tricks or adjustments he may consider.
- Start Joe B. Bertrand gives consistent effort, scoring, and defense. Griffey does not. Realizing that being relegated might end Griffey’s usefulness completely, we still think Joe from the start might help with some intensity issues.
- Run some second-level screens. We will continue to call for down and cross screens until we see them fail. The high screen is too predictable right now. Need to do something else to shake loose some shooters. The Badgers showed yesterday how well second-level screening off the ball can work.
- Bar Brandon from chucking 3s early. This is not a new suggestion. We’ve been saying for years that BP3 needs to lay off the threes until he draws some contact and gets in the lane. The #1 offensive priority until the end of the season needs to be getting Brandon going early. Driving lanes are the key here.
- Start McLovin. Plan B to not starting Bertrand would be to start Sam McLaurin. Maybe he can grab some rebounds and prevent Egwu from overreacting to physical challenges. McLovin has looked a little dazed by the brutality of B1G post play, but he’s too heady and savvy to not figure it out.
- Throw it into the post. No, I’m not kidding. At least throw it in there once in while. A little more posting up could open driving lanes. And you have to believe that McLovin, Joe B, and Egwu might shoot better than 30% from down there (which is about what the Illini have been shooting in these losses).
None of these tactical adjustments are visionary or unique. Surely Coach Groce and his staff have considered these options among dozens of others. The question is, what can he implement in the middle of conference play? One of the main complaints with Coach Weber’s style was his inability (or was it sheer stubbornness) to adjust. Can the new guy do better?
Of course so much of this is based on player confidence. Much is also based on the officials and how much bumping and holding they allow to occur (believe we mentioned that the refs in the B1G kind of suck). Coach Groce cannot control these factors, but he will surely try to influence them.
We’ve seen him answer early challenges on the recruiting front and in the non-conference schedule. Now we just have to hope he can execute some kind of response plan in the toughest conference in the country. The goal is clear: get to .500 or better in the conference and avoid a collapse (because this group of players has proven capable of abject collapse). Fortunately, the next two games – home to Northwestern and at Nebraska – are good opportunities.