Coach Brad Underwood must have noticed something in the final 20 minutes, because Illinois continued Tuesday where it left off a month ago. The team took an 18-point lead in the first 10 minutes and broke through late in the game to win 73-66.
Illinois hit their first four 3’s, scored 10 of their first 15 baskets and kept Northwest at bay for much of the game, despite a quiet first half from stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. The Fighting Illini cooled off midway through the game – Northwestern’s 3-2 zone caused some problems and the Wildcats eventually cut the deficit to 1 – but Dosunmu had resigned himself to being the best in college basketball and hit three huge shots in the final minutes to help Illinois win.
And despite the difficulties, the Fighting Illini still managed to score at least 73 points per game from the seven-point line. They shot 51.9% from the field and 38.1% from three-point range.
Illinois, ranked No. 5 in the country, has won six games in a row and is well on its way to securing first place in Sunday’s qualifiers.
But a year ago, around this time, the Fighting Illini had suffered four consecutive defeats and had failed to reach the 70-point mark in six consecutive games. It is one of the most explosive offensive teams in the country.
What went wrong last season
Last season, Illinois was an NCAA tournament team. The Fighting Illini closed out the season by winning five of their last six games, but their offense was in trouble. They rank ninth in the Big Ten in terms of offensive prowess in the league, scoring less than a point per possession in six of their last ten games. Illinois was the worst team in the league by three points and one of the worst in the country, making just 29.3 percent of their attempts in the Big Ten.
I did a post-mortem on our season, I really delved into film and analysis, said assistant coach Stephen Gentry, who is in charge of Illinois’ offense. Sometimes it was painful to watch. It was so hectic, the holes were bad.
It was Missouri’s first loss before the Christmas break. The pressing attack did not work, it did not play to the strengths of our players. The most important statistic is winning, and that’s not what we do.
What has changed this season
Illinois has completely reorganized its attack system. The Fighting Illini went from a pinch and high post attack to an attack more based on ball screens and moving the other four players around Cockburn’s big man.
At the end of last season they started using parts of the new attack, but with games every few days it was hard to really change the system. But because they had a lot of time to spend in the offseason, Gentry and other Illinois coaches had countless Zoom sessions with the team – especially the goalies – to go over the new system.
It is a system based on three words: Race, space and speed, Gentry said. The part of the race is rhythm. We need to play more, create more chances like this. Our assets have grown significantly.
The second component was space. Play more at 4 hours per hour, less per hour. We are just very attentive to details with our interval. We put blue ribbon all over our practice field as a training aid. Our intervals are much better this year. Play smaller, be in the right places on the field.
Then there is the tempo component, which plays with more aggressiveness and fluidity. Everyone sees rhythm as a transition, but I see it as a semi-judicial foul. Keep the ball moving. This is the largest area we have improved. Play with more rhythm and more power on the half of the field. But it has something to do with decision making.
It worked. Illinois ranks in the top 10 nationally this season in adjusted offensive efficiency and in the top 15 nationally in 3-point percentage. The Illini reach 39.0% of their attempts on 3-pointers, nearly 9 points higher than last season. They also play much faster and average five more home runs per game in the Big Ten than they did a year ago. Gentry said they score up to 24 points per game in the first seven seconds, a statistic the staff has kept for years.
Ayo Dosunmu, from Illinois, has become one of the best college basketball players. Stephen Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports
And the new offense got the best of Dosunmu and Cockburn, perhaps the best indoor tandem east of Spokane, Wash. Dosunmu was a legitimate candidate for the Wooden Award because his scoring, rebounding, passing and shooting were better than last season.
According to Gentry, Ayo has really improved his skills as a pick-and-roll defender in terms of reading the game. Use the bulb screen in different ways, with different readings, track progressions. Teams really adapt to him and try to throw him a lot of different curve balls.
Meanwhile, Cockburn was one of the most dominant big men in the country. With an unmatched physical presence, Cockburn is more efficient and consistent around the rim than he was last season.
He is the best basketball player in college, Gentry said. He draws so much attention that he drains the defense and creates those open 3s and open drives. We use Kofi’s bullet screens as triggers to hurt others.
We shoot better, play smaller around him. It’s more like your poison. Should I stay with Kofi or give up the open tee?
When Underwood arrived at Illinois in 2017, he continued the style that his teams at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State – a style based on forcing turnovers and scoring points on defense.
During his first year, he tried to repress everything, deny everything and be chaotic. It didn’t work, a Big Ten coach said. I think he realizes that these systems don’t work in the Big Ten. The defense was a mess. Especially on the road, it didn’t work. You can’t win in the Big Ten if you refuse to play the pinch wheel. What he did before that was so unique that he was a tough scout. It’s more traditional, but built for the long haul.
While the league’s coaches know how difficult Cockburn is to handle because of his immense strength and size, it’s the Fighting Illini’s group on the perimeter that makes it so difficult to prepare them – and the new offense allows these goalies to flourish. In addition to Dosunm, senior Trent Frazier and freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo help make the Fighting Illini offense so dangerous.
Ayo is an NBA defender. Curbelo is an excellent passer and ball handler, another Big Ten coach said. You keep the ball in the hands of these guys and you let them play. Fraser is a very, very good player. Underwood] revolves a lot around Kofi. Four good shooters on the ground around Kofi, and Kofi sets up ball screens and rollers.
They play very hard. They’re strong and they get the job done. They’re very physical. But they have an incredible defensive game. They are the best defensive trio in the league.
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