Two Man Game
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So I consumed A LOT of Big Ten basketball over the past two days. I tuned into all four Christmas Day games (I may have napped a bit during the Michigan/Nebraska snoozer, but man that Minnesota win over Iowa was quite the nitecap), watched the second half of Northwestern/Ohio State (not sure I'm thrilled that Northwestern is going to be ranked come Monday), and then finished off this little hoops marathon at the State Farm Center this afternoon for our game against Indiana.
Six games and 36 hours later, I was struck by the parallels and contrasts between the first game of the six (Wisconsin/Michigan State) and the last one (ours).
Wisconsin vs Michigan State. With 10:07 left to play, the Spartans trailed the visiting Badgers by a point.
Indiana vs Illinois. With 10:01 left to play, the Illini trailed the visiting Hoosiers by two points.
Wisconsin vs Michigan State. Michigan State wilted down the stretch - allowing the Badgers to end the game on a 22-14 run and losing 85-76. The Spartans couldn't get any stops, struggled to find any kind of offensive identity, and generally made a mess of the final five minutes.
Indiana vs Illinois. Illinois took full command down the stretch - ending the game on a 25-14 run to win going away 69-60. The Illini knew exactly what to do in winning time. They tightened the screws on defense and put the ball in the hands of the best closer in the college game - Ayo Dosunmu.
Let's revisit that 10:01 mark of the second half. Giorgi Bezhanishvili had just knocked down a three pointer to cut a five point Indiana lead to two, but Brad Underwood was seething. On the previous Indiana possession, the Hoosiers had grabbed just their second offensive rebound of the day, and converted that into their first second chance points of the day. Underwood called time out immediately after the Giorgi three and challenged the Illinois huddle with some trademark Underwood rage-fire. (You knew it was coming when he put on his face shield just prior to calling the time out).
His volume leaving nothing to the imagination, he repeatedly yelled "REBOUND THE BALL!!" -- his voice bellowing throughout the empty State Farm Center. Soon after, Cockburn changed the entire tenor of the game with blocked shots (and defensive rebounds off those same blocked shots) on two consecutive defensive possessions. Consider Brad Underwood heard.
The Illini scored on both possessions immediately following the two blocks - turning a three point deficit into a two point lead and kickstarting the above mentioned 25-14 run. That was also the beginning of Ayo Time. Starting with the made three that give Illinois a 51-49 lead - one they would never relinquish - here are the final 14 Illini offensive possessions:
8:17 - Dosunmu made 3
7:35 - Cockburn missed lay-up
7:29 - Curbelo 1-2 FTs
6:40 - Dosunmu made 3
6:06 - Dosunmu made 3
5:30 - Dosunmu made lay-up
4:28 - Giorgi turnover
2:20 - Curbelo missed jumper
3:17 - Frazier 0-1 FT
3:55 - DMW - 2-2 FTs
1:46 - Dosunmu made 3
0:54 - Dosunmu 2-2 FTs
0:44 - Frazier 2-2 FTs
0:09 - Dosunmu turnover
Ayo used 50% of those final Illini possessions, scored 16 of the final 21 points, and made the last five Illini baskets. He finished with 30 points for the second consecutive game. As Underwood said after the game: "Ayo is a hard-rocking dude."
His postgame press conference comedy sidekick Kofi Cockburn also finished with a sexy stat line - 15 points/15 rebounds/2 blocks. Furthermore, Cockburn made life perfectly miserable all day for Hoosier superstar Trayce Jackson-Davis. Jackson-Davis was clearly uncomfortable going up against Cockburn's physicality - struggling to just 11 points on 3 of 13 shooting. After the game, Underwood called Cockburn's second half defensive performance "dominant."
At the end of the day, Dosunmu and Cockburn combined for 75% of the made Illinois field goals and 50% of the made Illinois free throws. Today's game turned on a relatively simple premise. Illinois had Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, while Indiana did not.
All of this is not to imply that Illinois is overly reliant on Dosunmu and Cockburn. Without question, the Illini are at their best when the threes are falling and four or five guys are scoring in double figures. However, in the third game in six days, when the legs were heavy after back to back east coast road trips, the game was a slog, and the shots just weren't dropping, it sure was nice having the best two guys on the court on our side. I'm guessing Tom Izzo would love to be able to lean on a little star power right about now.
So yeah, the other thing I took away from a two day Big Ten basketball bender? Illinois has the best 1-2 punch in the conference - and by a wide margin.
+This game was a fascinating contrast in styles. Illinois came in at #5 in offensive efficiency per KenPom while Indiana came in at #10 in defensive efficiency. For most of the afternoon, though, the Hoosiers were able to bend the tempo in their direction and prevent the game from turning into a track meet. They were running away from the offensive glass in an effort to get back to defend against transition - and it worked. The Illini came in averaging over 18 fast break points in their three previous Big Ten games, but finished today with just 10 such points.
+When the Illini fast break was working - Andre Curbelo was once again the one pushing that pedal. Some missed shots cost him a few assists, but he still managed to finish the game with 5, and leads the Big Ten in assists in conference only games (6.8). He's probably not going to win BTFOY with the numbers Michigan's Hunter Dickinson is putting up, but Curbelo might already lead the league in fun.
+The penalty Indiana paid for selling out against the Illinois transition offense was an almost non-existent offensive rebounding output. The Illini rebounded over 91% of Indiana's misses and held the Hoosiers to just five second chance points. For a team who struggles to find offense as much as Indiana does, I'm not sure about that trade.
+DMW has evolved into the purest definition of a "3 and D" guy. His usage (percentage of his possessions ending with a shot, free throw, or turnover) is a team low 8.8%, but he leads the country in 3 point shot percentage (among players with at least 20 attempts) at 69.6%. He was 2 of 3 today - and his season percentage got worse!
+Plus/Minus is never my favorite stat, but it can tell you something on occasion. Today, only one Illinois player finished in the red. Adam Miller was a -13(!!) in just 18 minutes of play. Underwood said all the right things about the freshman after the game today, but it's going to get tougher to trust him in these tight league games if numbers like that become a trend.
+Happy Holidays to all our IB subscribers and readers! Thank you all for reading and for your overwhelming support over these past several months - as quite literally we wouldn't be here without you. Now onward to 2021!