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Coaches live for teaching moments. Most would admit, though, that lessons taught in practice are often lacking in the impact department. But lessons taught under adversity in real game situations? That's how stuff gets hardwired.
Still, one could forgive Brad Underwood if even he thought his Illini team took that concept a little too far this afternoon. While the Illini tore through the empty calories of North Carolina A&T and Chicago State like so much mashed potatoes, today's main course against Ohio in the final game of the season opening MTE was almost downright upsetting.
The Bobcats had more energy on and off the court for most of the afternoon, and with 13:47 left in the game, the Illini found themselves down 49-41,the annoyingly vocal Ohio bench was chirp chirp chirping away, and UPSET WATCHES were going off across the Twitterverse.
The Illini responded with a quick 8-0 run to get back to even, but after several uncharacteristic defensive lapses down the stretch, the Illini were trailing again - this time 71-67 with under two minutes to play. Fortunately, heroics of the expected (Ayo) and unexpected (DMW) varieties over those final two minutes proved to be just enough to allow Illinois to sneak out of the SFC with a 77-75 win. Class dismissed.
After the game Underwood lamented some strategic misfires defending the pick and roll which allowed Ohio's fantastic point guard Jason Preston (31-6-8) to get to the middle of the floor too easily and also allowed sharpshooting Ben Vander Plas (four threes and 20 points) too many catches without resistance (And I cannot believe I missed the opportunity to make a Vander Plas Rules tweet today).
A defensive strategy Illinois has commonly employed against good three point shooting teams is to stay home on the arc and negate those three point opportunities by luring teams into a two-man game. That was the thought process again today, but one small problem - those two men for Ohio were both fantastic and we almost got burned as a result.
Especially Preston. He matched Ayo Dosunmu haymaker for haymaker and stat line for stat line. He torched us on the pick and roll all day. He may well have ended up as today's hero given one more chance. Thankfully, though, Ayo was Ayo once again, and Illinois cornerback Trent Frazier got his hips flipped, his head turned, and high pointed the ball for a late game interception that denied Preston a final opportunity.
Like so many mid-major Keon Johnsons and Dallas Moores before him, was fantastic. He dictated the tempo of this game for most of the game. Yet his efforts notwithstanding, Illinois still probably wins this game comfortably but for one (and ultimately fixable) issue - turnovers.
We turned it over on 22% of our possessions today and Ohio converted those turnovers into 21 points. (21-7 points off turnovers for the game). Cut that number in half and you probably win this game comfortably.
Frustratingly, the Illini turnovers were mostly of the unforced and lazy persuasion. Step on the sideline here, a careless pass there. We want to win the shot volume game and that's tough to do when you're giving possessions away so freely.
Otherwise, I actually don't think Illinois played all that terribly. We shot the ball reasonably well (including 40% from three), were again dominant on both the offensive and defensive glass, and the defensive effort was solid enough on the whole - holding Ohio to 1.03 points per possession. However, down the stretch Ohio scored on six straight possessions, and you got the sense that the Illini were staggering. Fortunately, Ohio just ran out of time.
Forgive me if this seems oversimplified, but aside from the turnovers (and FT shooting), I'd take the numbers from this game on most nights against most opponents. It's why I'm choosing not to view today's game as a grave portent of things to come. I'll acknowledge this might be wishcasting, but I'm more encouraged by the shooting and rebounding numbers on the whole than I am discouraged that one guy had a game and we were sloppy with the ball.
And yes, as we covered yesterday, scoring margin does matter, but let's also acknowledge the difference between a 125ish rated team and a 325ish rated team. Great teams will indeed blow out terrible teams, but great teams will also struggle on occasion against average ones. Heck we even took eventual NCAA Tournament number one seed Gonzaga to the final possession in Maui in in 2018 - and we probably weren't as good as this Ohio team. Besides, the Illinois scoring margin average is still over 40 ppg!
So I caution you against making any grand projections based on this game just like you shouldn't have after the first two. Most importantly, though, Illinois escaped today with a win, and with Baylor and Duke looming here's hoping a few lessons were learned.
+ 75-74 Ohio. 7.7 seconds left on the clock. Was there any doubt who was getting the ball for Illinois? We all could call the play in the huddle -- give the ball to Ayo and get the hell out of the way. Illini fans remain spoiled by Ayo Dosunmu and his near transcendent ability to make almost every play in crucial late game situations. Everyone in the gym knows where the ball is going, and yet he keeps coming through time after time. I'm just thankful that Ohio tried to pick up Ayo full court on the game deciding possession. It only required a single screen to put Ayo in his most dangerous environment - in transition with a full head of steam. Ball game.
+ I think we're probably going to struggle defending the pick and roll against good stretch "4s". Guys like that have the size to give DMW trouble in the post, but going bigger is no great shake either, as Giorgi struggles defending on the perimeter. We're going to need to figure out a better way to make things difficult for the "pop" guy.
+ Speaking of DMW - Brad Underwood called him "without question the most valuable player of the game." I think this is true - at least in the "MVP not named Ayo Dosunmu" category. In the preview I mentioned his 8/17 three point shooting over the final six games from last year. Add in the 5 of 7 through these first three games and now we're at 50% over the last nine games. That sample size is growing.
+ I really don't want "Kofi hands" to become a thing. Squeeze it big fella.