Defense Mechanism

Jan 6, 2020

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So I had it all figured out back in November. An Illini team returning over 80% of its minutes from last season and adding one of the best freshman big men in program history would be primed to take the next step forward - taking an offense that was decent but inconsistent last season and turning it into one of the better units in the Big Ten. The improved offense was going to be the catalyst to propel the Illini to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2014.

The only question - would the Illinois defense continue to negatively skew the equation by giving back far too many layups, open three point looks, and free throws?

Fast forward to January 5, and through the first four Big Ten games, the Illini have one of the worst offenses in the conference, but have been the most efficient defensive team - by a wide margin. Because, of course.

Behind the revamped and suddenly stifling defense, Illinois romped to a 63-37 win over Purdue tonight at the SFC. Purdue entered the game suffering from a split personality disorder - owning one of the most severe home/road splits you'll ever see. The Boilers had shot 48% from the floor in running up a 7-1 record at home, but had lost 4 of 6 away from Mackey - while shooting at just a 36% clip.

Make that 5 of 7. In fact, this one ended as a historically bad offensive performance for the Boilers. Their 37 points was the lowest scoring output since 1948, and their 25% shooting for the game was the worst in program history. That's saying something for a program with over 120 seasons on its ledger. (It's really hard to imagine typing these words from where Illinois was a year ago.)

The improbable identity change of this Illini team remains fascinating. It's a team that entirely retooled its offensive and defensive schemes in large part to accommodate Kofi Cockburn. This may well explain the lack of offensive improvement typically seen from teams with the degree of continuity Illinois (9th in the country) maintained from last season. On the other hand, the improvements on the defensive end have been nothing short of remarkable. Maybe it's just easier to start from scratch on that end of the floor.

Despite their shooting woes in conference play thus far, there are signs that Illinois might be ready to turn a corner offensively - primarily the continued emergence of Alan Griffin (My Guy!) and the reemergence of Trent Frazier. While I'm not ready to proclaim the season long three point shooting drought over after tonight's 37% performance, I do believe a "positive" regression to the mean is coming for this team. And really - that's all they need. If this defense is for real - and it has been against four solid Big Ten opponents - then it can win games with just replacement level perimeter shooting.

After this rout, the Illini now sit at 2-2 in the conference, and jumped all the way to #33 in KenPom - again underscoring how much stock the computer rankings have in the Big Ten. The loss Thursday in East Lansing was especially frustrating because of the dismal three point shooting, but in the big picture it didn't really damage the NCAA Tournament prospects whatsoever. Because of the conference strength, Illinois is still going to find itself in pretty good shape IF they continue to hold serve at home. Unfortunately, the non-conference struggles have sliced the error margin to a dangerously thin level, and as such they can ill afford any slip ups at home - at least until they collect a road win against a conference team not named Northwestern. They'll get that next chance Wednesday in Madison.


+Alan Griffin is a secret weapon no more. Matt Painter indicated that Griffin was featured prominently on their pregame scouting report, and then called him "the best player on the floor" after the game. I happen to agree. His knack for offensive rebounding is borderline preternatural. There have been calls for him to start, but I think the energy and offensive firepower he brings to the floor make him a perfect "sixth man". As long as he is getting starter type minutes (25-ish) then I'm good.

+Griffin may have been the best player on the floor tonight, but Trent Frazier wasn't far behind. We've seen Frazier become the defensive stopper among the guard rotation, and that was fully apparent tonight as he gave no quarter to Purdue sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic. However, we also saw the return of the aggressive shot-hunting Frazier on offense. He led the team in field goal attempts tonight - putting up double digit shots for only the second time this season. Underwood admitted after the game that getting Frazier more involved on offense was a point of emphasis and from this chair - that's a positive development.

+Underwood still has a Kofi/Giorgi problem. He kind of had to roll with both tonight as Purdue presented the unique challenge of their own twin towers, but the offense continues to bog down with Giorgi at the top of the floor. While he did knock down a three tonight, teams still aren't respecting him out there. It makes for nearly impossible post entry angles and it also mucks up the lane. Purdue was able to allow Matt Haarms to camp down there and deter just about everything going to the rim. Ayo was just 3-11 from the floor tonight - and that was a big reason why.

+Painter said afterwards that he could "give a tutorial" on how to manage two big guys who each demand heavy minutes. It was one of many thoughtful answers Painter gave throughout the post-game press conference. Despite getting his doors blown off tonight, Painter was engaging and forthcoming throughout the session. Really great stuff for a basketball junkie/wannabe journalist such as myself.


ktcesw on January 6, 2020 @ 07:26 AM

I really like what you had to say here. Thank you!

mmyers74 on January 6, 2020 @ 11:49 AM

Great stuff and great game.

I do think that one thing is very important, however. Our 3 point shooting will not improve (much) simply via a regression to the mean. Saying so diminishes/overlooks what we did right tonight, and very wrong vs. MSU (and others.)

"Not all 3's are created equal." (I won't re-elaborate, but check the gang who can't shoot straight comments for me vomiting about this.)

The weave creates, for this group of players, low % 3-pointers. (Off the dribble, from an on-ball screen, etc.). It is not set up to create the style of 3 this personnel needs, to succeed.

Tonight, we got many of those higher % 3's. Catch, (in rhythm, with space, extra pass) and shoot. It was night and day. Last game, I counted 5, all game. Tonight, there were 5 in the first half. We made 3 (griff extra pass, Trent and Kipper. I don't count Giorgi Bc he is just left alone). Ayo missed on great setup and Alan was off balance on one.

But here's WHY it changed. Those shots came from: A. The secondary break B. The spread.

So... my point is this.

If we continue to operate on those principles (find open 3's from the secondary break and focus on the spread and not the weave), our %'s will have the best chance of staying increased. If we revert to a heavy reliance on the weave, we will be forced to hope for a simple regression, while shooting shots that will never go in at a high %. It may slightly uptick, but will remain terrible, unfortunately.

Walkon on January 6, 2020 @ 11:59 AM

Per our staff - and of course take that with the appropriate amount of salt - they graded 23 of our 28 threes @ MSU as “good” shots.

Giovantischixstripz on January 6, 2020 @ 12:35 PM

That roughly matches what I saw too. There were earlier games (Mizzou) where we just weren't generating good looks. Against MSU we were just missing.

The defense won't always be this good (and the other team won't always have a Nojel Eastern who makes Damonte look like an offensive threat), but if we just shoot respectably from 3 things become so much easier. Feliz, Nichols, and Giorgi all hit a 3. Those 3 always get open looks because teams dare them to shoot, if they can knock them down at even just a 30% clip we'll get the wins we need.

Aggressive Trent is huge too. He still didn't shoot the 3 well, but he made the defense consider him as more than just a spot up threat, he attacked and probed the mid range. If he keeps playing with aggression like this we'll have a Trent super nova game coming where he doesn't miss much and drops 25.

mmyers74 on January 6, 2020 @ 03:56 PM

There are, again, levels of shots, from awful to amazing. How big one makes the "good" bucket, is fairly subjective.

If the staff graded 23 of the 28 shots at MSU as "good", then their definition of good is very different than my definition of good. Not to mention that "good" for one type of player may be "bad" for another. And to be fair, one of us has reason to grade more "good", as one outcome points the finger at the scheme and coaching, while the other points it at the players "just missing shots".

Nothing to see here. Just some missed shots. :)

Forgive me, but with this team/personnel, anything less than catch and shoot, with space, and time and balance... and occasional one bounce, in rhythm, alone... should not be considered a good shot. And there were not nearly 23 or 28 shots in that MSU game that came near that type of shot.

Yes, guys can be "open"... but in the world of 3 pointers, shot by non-ultra exceptional specialists, the difference, when your eyes are (in my case, simply through repetition) trained to see them, are stark.

This may sound pompous, and i don't mean for it to, as it truly is just a time and volume based occurrence... but let me watch the lead up to a 3, thru the exit of the hands... and 7-10, I can call a make or miss. Squareness/rhythm/timing/space/head position/follow thru/ threat of defense/ flow of offense/etc...

It's why the xtra pass 3 goes in SO MUCH MORE OFTEN than the "open" 3.

There is zero doubt that the style of three we took on the Purdue game was vastly superior to the style of three we took vs MSU.

If this staff can't see that (and I truly hope they can), we are actually in trouble. I'm banking on them knowing it.

Giovantischixstripz on January 6, 2020 @ 04:41 PM

Why does walkon and the staff have a reason to come up with a narrative that excuses the coaching staff? I don't think they have been shy about criticizing them.

I watch/play/and coach a lot of basketball too. I saw different shots than you. There was a lot of catch and shoot opportunities from guys who are less than 30% 3 point shooters. The looks were good, the shooters are not. Against MSU those players that shoot less than 30% went 0-15. Those same players went 3-7 vs Purdue. Giorgi was left just as alone both games, he just hit 1 vs purdue and not against MSU. Ditto Feliz and Kipper (His only look against MSU was a bad look and Ayo had a bad look as well, so change 0-15 to 0-13 if you want to). Our 2 natural shooters (Trent and Alan) are more capable of hitting deeper 3s, off the bounce 3s, and off the move 3s. In both games they tried some tough looks. They didn't hit them against MSU, they each hit one "heat check" type 3 vs Purdue (Frazier off the bounce 3 feet behind the line, Griffin on the move 3 feet behind the line). End result is 3-13 vs MSU for those 2 and 4-11 vs Purdue.

I will say the game script led to different shot profiles between the 2 games as it went on. I thought in the first half vs MSU we got good looks that wouldn't go. As we fell back double digits and more the shots became a bit more forced in the 2nd half, while as we started pulling away from Purdue in the 2nd half their defense started becoming disjointed leaving more open shooters. But if we had hit the good shots in the first half vs MSU it might have been a different story in the 2nd half.

mmyers74 on January 6, 2020 @ 07:46 PM

Quickly, Walkon has no reason to (and didn't as far as I can tell), and the staff would only do so if they wanted to avoid saying "our scheme sucks" :). I never intimated that Walkon was being nefarious or that I know the staff to be. I just pointed out their motivation would be stronger than mine, to push a narrative. That's sort of unarguable, (as i wouldn't have reason for motive.)

As for the rest, first let me say that I respect you and your opinion (and I believe we are on the same side). I want more makes (and wins) and so do you. So I don't want to argue too much.

Because I respect your opinion, I went back and looked at all of the made 3's from this last game, because you made me question/doubt what I thought i saw. First, I admit that i disregard Giorgi's, because ALL of his looks will be open looks. Maybe forever. :)

We agree on the main 3 makes, and only the 2 (Trent/Griffin) are in question. Here's what i saw. Trent's wasn't a heat check so much as a shot clock rundown (which equates to similar success), so while it was under control and in the flow, with intent, it was still a non-ideal shot attempt... Griff's long three was definitely not on the move, however. Rether, it was a waiting, squared up and spot up 3. (Which While deep, is still of the highest quality variety).

Regardless, it's ok if you and I saw different levels of quality shots. Truly.

But if the team goes back to the weave, resulting in the shots that I think i saw vs MSU and Mizzou (and many other games), and we don't focus on getting the right types of 3's... in my humble opinion, our %'s will stay lower than they should be.

And I want to win (as do you).

Humble disagreement. Fair?

Giovantischixstripz on January 6, 2020 @ 09:51 PM

Absolutely. My apologies if I came off a bit strong. Rewatched those 3s, you are correct, I think the Alan one I was thinking of when he was curling around a hand off rattled out.

One note on the weave, while it has not been an effective form of offense for us, I did see in the MSU game us do some things finally that make the weave effective: one was Ayo dribbling towards the left wing, hesitating as if he was going to hand it off per usual, and then exploding to the rim for a lay up. The other Tevian hit someone (Griffin I think?) with a pretty bounce pass on a back cut. Those are the types of plays that are needed to keep a defense on its toes against the weave. Its not enough yet to make it worthwhile, but maybe they are getting better in it. The same thing happens in our spread, we can hit that back door lob maybe once per game, the hand off around the punch post works about once per game, but then we need to have more variations off it to keep the defense guessing. Robotic offense seems to be our problem in any system we run. Compare that to all the improvising Winston is able to do out of their base sets, and how Tillman and the wings who have been there a bit longer read the defensive movements and each others movements and its night and day. Having a senior maestro like Winston obviously is a big part of that, but we should be further along than we are with our variations and adjustments.

W.I.N.T. on January 6, 2020 @ 01:38 PM

It's seems silly to nitpick after a game like this, but I have to. We cannot play an offense that has Kofi, Georgi, and DMW on the court at the same time. You simply can't have 3 total non-shooters. 2 is even pushing it. There is absolutely no space for the guards to penetrate which means you're relying on post play or contested 3s to score.

It's tough to manage because all 3 guys are valuable players individually but their skill sets just don't match up all that well. BU needs to do a better job of staggering the minutes. Griffin's emergence should greatly help with that.

Giovantischixstripz on January 6, 2020 @ 01:58 PM

Its pretty astounding that as well as he played yesterday, and as well as he has played the past few games, Alan still only got 20 minutes. 16 and 12 in 20 minutes!

Kipper got 24 (admittedly he was good Kipper yesterday, but still didn't deserve more than Alan) and Damonte got 18. Kipper and Damonte should both be ceding 4 more minutes each to get Griffin into the high 20s of minutes.

Groundhogday on January 6, 2020 @ 04:38 PM

This is definitely shaping up as a bubble tournament season. Defense has been dramatically improved, offense still struggles. I'm not confident a regression to the mean on shooting will do it, so I hope Underwood is as flexible with the offense (and rotations) going forward has he has been with the defense vs. last season.

mmyers74 on January 6, 2020 @ 08:13 PM

Agreed wholeheartedly.

Groundhogday on January 8, 2020 @ 07:31 PM

I occurs to me that perhaps Underwood’s inability to deal with the offensive issues this season might be because he absolutely loves Giorgi on a personal level. Might be really hard for Brad to accept that Giorgi just hasn’t been good in this new role, might need to play less. Coaches are human.

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