Tracy Abrams, Jared Swopshire

No. 23 Illinois continues to struggle offensively in 68-54 loss to Northwestern

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During much of the non-conference portion of their schedule, No. 23 Illinois had it rolling from beyond the arc. That success from the perimeter led some to believe that maybe John Groce’s team could compete for a spot in the top half of the Big Ten.

But once the perimeter shots stopped falling the Fighting Illini began to struggle offensively, and those issues continued on Thursday night as they fell to Northwestern by the final score of 68-54.

Illinois (14-5, 1-4 Big Ten) shot 3-of-21 from beyond the arc, and over the last three games the Illini have shot a frigid 8-of-59 from distance. When a team shoots that poorly from deep and turns the ball over 18 times it doesn’t matter if they shoot 16-of-28 from inside of the arc and score 24 points in the paint.

By comparison Reggie Hearn led five Wildcats (11-7, 2-3) in double figures with 20 points, and as a team Northwestern shot 50% from the field and 8-of-16 from beyond the arc. Northwestern hit eight three-pointers in the first half as they built a 36-21 halftime lead, and they were able to hold on despite some issues handling the Illinois pressure in the latter stages of the second half.

One big question in the aftermath of this result is what’s wrong with Illinois offensively. Entering Thursday the Illini ranked ninth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (38.6%) and 11th in three-point percentage (25.3%) in conference play.

Brandon Paul led all scorers with 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but removing his numbers the rest of the team managed to shoot just 10-of-32 from the field. And with Illinois’ reliance on the jump shot numbers such as those aren’t going to get it done.

It isn’t impossible to win games when you’re struggling offensively, but the task become far tougher when you’re not getting it done defensively either. Each of Illinois’ last three opponents have shot 49% or better from the field, and after a trip to Nebraska they’ll begin a stretch of five straight games against teams currently ranked in the Top 25.

Within a month Illinois has gone from being a team poised to be a pleasant surprise in the Big Ten to one in search of answers. And given how tough the Big Ten has proven to be, this isn’t the best time to be mired in a shooting slump.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.