What Illinois managed to do in the aftermath of their win over No. 1 Indiana on Thursday night was going to reveal an awful lot about John Groce’s team and prospects for the remainder of the season.
After the Fighting Illini’s 57-53 win at No. 18 Minnesota on Sunday night, it’s safe to say that this group has turned a corner in regards to both defense and toughness. And that has Illinois headed in the right direction when it comes to earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Illinois got off to a cold start from the field, going more than nine minutes without a made field goal to start the game. But unlike the majority of their games to start Big Ten play the Illini defended, which allowed them to remain within striking distance against a Golden Gopher team that was without senior forward Rodney Williams (shoulder).
Minnesota shot just 38% for the game and committed 13 turnovers, and the combination of those issues and Illinois hitting 11 three-pointers led to the Illini leaving Williams Arena with the win.
Tyler Griffey, the hero on Thursday night, scored 16 points to lead Illinois with D.J. Richardson (13 points) and Brandon Paul (ten) also reaching double figures. Trevor Mbakwe led the Golden Gophers with 13 points and ten rebounds.
The win pulls Illinois to within a game of Minnesota and Purdue, who are tied for sixth in the Big Ten at 5-6, and the Illini host the Boilermakers on Wednesday. That game begins a stretch of seven games to end the regular season, and outside of trips to No. 3 Michigan and No. 10 Ohio State the Illini will be favored in each of those contests.
Placing Illinois in the role of “favorite” shouldn’t be as troublesome after their last two performances, with Groce’s team showing both a stronger commitment to the defensive end of the floor and a tougher mindset.
If Illinois continues to develop in those areas they’ll find themselves in the NCAA tournament.
Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.
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.
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.