A Much Needed Week Off
Never has a team needed a midweek bye more than this Illinois team. Another home loss and another lost opportunity to win back to back conference games. For a team that's played twice a week every week since getting the doors blown off by Indiana, it has to feel like a welcome reprieve. As a fan, I can certainly say I'm ready for it.
The Penn State loss had a sort of finality to it. A team that felt like a coin flip to make the tournament at the start of conference play has slid ever further away from it's place in the post season. After the (home) loss to Minnesota made it 8 league defeats, only the heartiest of fans could say "ok, if we win out we finish 10-8 and make the tournament." The loss to Penn State finally puts that dream to bed. I suppose the team could go on a magical tear through the conference tournament, but we'll cross that bridge when we get past the second round.
Ok, let's talk a bit about the games this past week then shall we? I'll largely stick to positives that translate to next year, because I can't think of another way to do this.
Te'Jon has really grown into this season and looks to be a solid player for the future. Over two games this week, he stuffed the stat sheet, piling up 13 assists, 9 total rebounds, 3 steals, and 22 points. That's really solid production from a position where we've had little to get excited about over the past few seasons.
With Lucas, the offensive creativity is real. He finds good spaces and angles, varies speeds well, and has a general cleverness to his game.
I get excited by plays like this one where Te'Jon uses a pass fake to clear himself a driving lane and finds Kipper opposite corner.
Or this one, where Te'Jon catches Shep Gardner sneaking a peek back to size up a screen, and takes the opportunity to blow by him.
Due to his size, he may never be a great lay up shooter a la Melo Trimble. Still, he's more adventurous going towards the rim than any player we've had at the one spot since pre-injury Abrams. Te'Jon leads all Illini (outside of Alex Austin) with 36.9% of his shots coming at the rim. He also has the second highest free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio on the team (first is Tate). This means he gets to the line with regularity. With his plus vision and passing ability that assertiveness is only going to open up the offense for the rest of the team.
Oh and he's playing really solid defense to boot.
Another big plus for me in the clip above was going with Finke at the 5. Against Penn State, Mav sat for 14 minutes, during which we ran with either Finke or Black as our biggest player. The difference on offense is obvious. The spacing provided by clearing out post players gives our rather anemic offense many more opportunities to collapse defenses.
Unfortunately, we don't have many guys with the athleticism, handles, or finishing ability to punish players who close out hard, but any opportunity we get to drive the ball must be taken. It might be asking too much next year for a bunch of freshmen wings to inject life, but creating more space as a baseline should help.
One more positive from the last week. JCL was very engaged defensively and seems to be making major strides in that area. We'll need the two way perimeter play from him next year as Malcolm often defends the opposition's best wing, and Kipper has looked a bit out of sorts when switched on to ones or twos.
He's been doing a great job lately of doing the work early. Getting in good positions, chasing players off the ball, and not needing to perform heroic on ball defense. There's a saying in football (as in the one played with one's feet) that the best defenders don't have to make tackles because they're always in good position. That's what JCL has been lately. Always in good position.
I find the clip below particularly illustrative. Jalen's guarding Shep Gardner, who gave up the dribble on the right wing to run through two baseline screens. The play here is for him to get the ball back on the opposite wing with the option to shoot or dive on a defender who's been strung out chasing him. JCL deftly navigates both screens and Shep never gets the ball back.
If you never get a steal because your man never gets the ball then you're never getting scored on either.
Now on the negative side of the ledger is our other sophomore top-40 recruit. Leron, after a great start returning from suspension, has kind of lost his way. He's still an elite rebounder, and if he continues on his current pace he'll finish in the top-25 for defensive rebounding rate. On offense though, he hasn't found a way to reliably contribute. Defending and rebounding, while occasionally chipping in a bucket here and there is fine by me. Using possessions on face up jumpers or sloppy post ups isn't.
Side note, we have to run most straight post ups of any freaking team in the country. Penn State was all over that and generated a few early steals because it's so obvious and we run so freaking many of them.
Anyway back to Leron. While his post defense has improved, he hasn't been as useful off the ball or on the perimeter. With our general lack of athleticism, any lack of urgency is going to cost us.
Take this play that came as part of the Penn State run that buried us in the first half.
Leron's helped Te'Jon by doubling Stevens, but when Stevens gives it up he just kind of lollygags. The ball's pinging around the perimeter and Payton Banks is totally static and unguarded on the opposite wing. Instead of flying over there or taking a closer man so someone else can fly out to the best shooter on the opposing team, Leron's bouncing around the lane doing a whole lot of nothing.
So while there are some things to buoy fan's hope for the future, there are still some real holes in this team. Holes that won't be filled immediately. We're going to lose arguably the best two way wing in the conference, and our most highly recruited players haven't developed complete packages yet. Maybe that's looking too far ahead. We've still got a third of the conference schedule to go, and a long off season after that. I probably shouldn't be this morbid. This is a good time for a week off.