This post was supposed to be about a turnaround. This post was supposed to be about how our seniors rallied on senior night to put themselves solidly in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament. After a botched Saturday afternoon in New Jersey, I feel like that's supposed to change.
This post should be about how and why we lost to the worst Big Ten team in the last decade. Or maybe it should be about what our chances are with a fairly weak bubble. We look pretty rosy by RPI, an antiquated metric that will no longer stand alone after this year, meaning there's an opportunity there. Losing in New Jersey just makes it tough to get your hopes up again.
Let's stay the course, though. Let's spend some time talking about how this team came back from the dead to get to be in the conversation. I feel like we need to pay some respect to what got us there (defense) because we were really really good over the last five conference games. And also we need to ask ourselves why the hell it took so long to be able to do it.
The Michigan State game really showed off what we could do on the defensive end of the floor. Yes, I'm saying this about a game where the opposing team shot 55% from inside the arc and 38% from three. We forced them towards crap shots all night, and they manged to convert a lot of what they got. If we hadn't played as well as we did on the defensive end it would have been an absolute blow out.
The game changer for us has been running shooters off of the three point line, while still managing to prevent the drive to the rim. We've actually done well this season forcing teams to settle for two point jumpers. Illinois' defense forces the 12th highest proportion of 2 point jumpers, and opponents convert a measly 35% of those opportunities. The problem is that when Illinois opponents get to the rim they finish 71% of the time. That's ranks the Illinois defense at 347th in the category.
Good examples from the MSU game:
In every one of those plays, an Illinois player is in a shooter's shirt on the catch AND his teammates are there to stop a run to the cup. You absolutely have to do both because the only shot more valuable than a three pointer is a shot at the rim.
Want to make a run to the tournament? Start by continuing to do that all day against Michigan on Thursday.
There's not much else to say about the run the team went on. Malcolm played really well. He increased his role as a facilitator, averaging 4.8 assists over the last five games. That certainly made our offense more fluid and dynamic. Mav allowed us to get quality possessions through post touches, a type of offense I've certainly been critical of. He's got two moves from each block, and passes the ball out of double teams extremely well. On a team that lacks dynamic ball handlers, Mav's ability to put defenses in scramble mode has been invaluable.
And yet, much like the defense, none of this should be news. I wrote back around the beginning of the season that Mav's post touches would act like dribble penetration for us. We saw all last year how Malcolm could run the offense, make candlesticks, and do all sorts of other nursery rhyme stuff. What happened to all of that during those long stretches in the doldrums this year?
We went on three separate three game losing streaks this year. That's actually a new unprecedented mark in the John Groce era. Although he's been on longer losing streaks, most notably the 8 game skid from 2013-2014, we've never seen the triple triple as it were. How can a team with two seniors who should be providing massive consistency, and defense that works when there's effort fall into so many slumps?
These questions are, of course, all fairly pointless and rhetorical, but I can't help but vent a bit. When you see guys chasing MSU shooters into bad shots all night or catch Mav whipping passes out of the post to open shooters or you see Kipper and Leron getting all over guys, what do you do with this feeling that a massive opportunity has been missed this year?
This isn't the team from a year ago that was just Malcolm. We have so much more.
We've got a big with great hands and ball skills.
We've got a headband guy who can legitimately defend 5 positions who can best be described as a bully on that end of the floor.
Leron played 30 minutes and only fouled 3 teams while defending the best freaking combo forward in the league!
This feeling of an opportunity lost is tough to stew in. I can't even imagine how it feels for the guys on the team. I've never had to lead a group through the type of adversity a college basketball season surely is. I can't imagine how difficult it is for the coach and the kids out there.
I have somehow over the course of this post worked myself back into hoping that we've got another two or three game spurt in us. Wins over Michigan and Purdue put us in a really good spot. Sure it's not likely, but why stand and watch the good ship opportunity sail away when you can hope against all hope that you can catch it if you swim fast enough.