Rewind - NCAA Tournament Preview

Mar 18, 2021

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On a frigid Saturday afternoon in mid-January at the State Farm Center, I watched Illinois fall behind Ohio State by 18 points in the first half en route to an eventual 87-81 loss. All of a sudden we were 9-5 and skidding into our next game against Penn State on a two game losing streak.

We've lost just once since that afternoon. Now here we stand almost exactly two months later with a 23-6 record, a Big Ten Tournament Championship trophy, and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Stunning, really, this evolution.

Brad Underwood has the Illinois program trajectory stuck firmly on rocket ship mode, but things only shifted upward following a transformational shift of both his offensive and defensive philosophies. The narrative surrounding those changes are well documented.

We've covered Underwood's updated schemes and strategies from several different angles in our Rewind posts this season, so I thought it would be fun to flip the script and turn this installment into more of a... "Pre-wind" if you will.

In this special tournament edition of Rewind, let's review to preview as I break down the fundamental concepts of what we do on both offense and defense. Let this be your NCAA Tournament Illini scouting primer. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

We'll start with...


The central focus of our man-to-man defense is the use of "Drop" coverage against high ball screens. As we've covered before, this means that instead of bringing our big men up high on the floor to trap ball screens (which we used to do), we drop them down well below the screen to provide rim protection.

The following clip shows our drop coverage working to perfection. As Penn State's John Harrar sets the ball screen for Myreon Jones. Kofi simply drops well down into the lane to guard the rim. Harrar isn't a perimeter threat, so Kofi can pay him virtually no mind.

Note also that Ayo goes "over the top" of the screen instead of going under it to run Jones off the three point line and funnel him towards Kofi at the rim.

The other key defensive tenet for the Illini defense is how we "ICE" wing ball screens. "Icing" a screen involves directing the ball handler towards the sideline or baseline. In this clip from our stomping of Rutgers at the BTT, you can actually see Ayo gesture for Kofi to help him ice Geo Baker towards the sideline as Myles Johnson comes for the screen.

"Drop"and "Ice" are most effective against teams which don't have screeners who are also outside shooting threats. However, teams which do feature bigs who can shoot from the perimeter can create problems. In this clip from @ OSU, watch how Giorgi is still above the free throw line - even though he's technically in drop coverage. He can only drop so far on the screen because he has to respect Liddell at the arc. Even so - Liddell still has room to snap off the three.

And here is the other edge of that sword. In this clip from the BTT Championship game, see again how Kofi's "drop" is still well above the foul line. He's a long way from the rim and Duane Washington takes advantage.

But more often than not this season, it's come together beautifully - as in this clip from the Michigan beatdown:

Here we see Trent go into cornerback mode and ice the attempted screen for Franz Wagner and then Kofi in deep drop coverage denies Mike Smith's path to the rim. That's how it's supposed to work folks.

OK, enough with the defense. Let's shift gears and move on to...


Our base offense - against man to man defense - relies heavily on ball screens to free up our two all Americans to do their thing.

When Kofi is on the floor, and teams trap his ball screens - you will usually see him slip that screen and roll hard to the basket. This typically leads to Kofi getting isolation opportunities against a mismatch. From the Rutgers game in Indy last weekend:

Myles Johnson shows high on the screen, and Kofi slips the screen to roll immediately. Johnson is occupied by Ayo which leaves Kofi in a mismatch against the help coming from Ron Harper, Jr. Kofi misses the layup - but the rim is open for Jacob Grandison (who Harper left when he went to help on Kofi).

Kofi slips his way to a lot of dunks as well..

On the other hand, when teams drop on ball screen coverage against us, it often opens up the floor for Ayo or Andre Curbelo.. Here Luka Garza stays connected to Kofi on the screen, but now Ayo is free to create. He's almost always going to draw help and in this clip that help comes from Jordan Bohannon...who leaves Trent open on the wing.

And now some fun from Curbelo. Seth Towns from OSU drops on the ball screen, but instead of staying with Kofi on the roll he has to step up to help on Curbelo and we all know what he can do with just a sliver of a passing angle…

If teams opt to throw a zone defense against us, look for us to work the ball into the middle of the floor and then to the baseline when the zone collapses to the ball.

Or from the middle back out to the perimeter…

Even when the ball doesn't get into the middle, if you move the ball this quickly…

Even a good zone can't catch up.

And of course, a zone is always vulnerable over the top to someone running the baseline…

A new and rather unexpected dimension emerged this season on offense - Da'Monte Williams: 3 Point assassin. A 27% shooter over his first three seasons, DMW developed into a not just reliable but deadly three point threat - connecting at a 57% clip from deep to this point. One reason for his improved accuracy is his selectivity. He definitely picks his spots - and spots usually come from the weak side of the floor. When he is on the court, watch how he will float away from the ball to almost hide on the opposite wing or corner when his man cheats toward the ball. A diagonal pass will then often find him wide open. You'll remember this is how he found himself open from essentially the same spot on the floor three times in the first half against OSU on Sunday, and also for this huge shot against the Buckeyes in Columbus.

The re-emergence of Andre Curbelo's magic in recent weeks has been an enormous factor behind this team raising its ceiling to a National Championship level. With his ball handling wizardry, few teams have been able to contain him off the dribble even though everyone knows he's a pass first guy. When he's on the floor watch how often he is able to maintain his bounce until the last possible millisecond before delivering a pass. He literally dribbles guys open.

As in this clip from the Big Ten Championship game...

We should all love someone like Bill Raftery loves Andre Curbelo.

And finally, our transition game has been in high gear all season. We are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country (you have to get the ball to run with the ball) and we have two bigs who are each fantastic "rim runners". In our tournament games, take note of how Kofi and Giorgi sprint to the other end of the floor off of defensive rebounds - as in these two great sequences from Minnesota:



So yeah, if you haven't figured it out by now, we're pretty good. Anyone else ready to get this tournament started?


AGig21 on March 18, 2021 @ 08:09 AM

while watching the videos I noticed how Grandison's presence has changed things and allowed BU to implement this offense and defense (I think). Although, not in these videos, we all know what happens when opposing defenses make some adjustments but by then DW is now in and able to do his thing on offense. Am I correct? Honestly not sure since most of the videos appear to be in the first 8 to 10 mins of first half. I'd like to know your thoughts when, (if it's already happened or will eventually happen), what the opponents adjustments have been or you anticipate will be. Hope that makes sense.

Walkon on March 18, 2021 @ 09:27 AM

First of all - thanks for commenting so fast. Your reply made me remember that I forgot to include a DMW clip in my hazy 3 AM editing frenzy. Now included!

To your point, I don’t think Jacob and DMW are a good change of pace from the wing and each provide something which fits into what we do.

DMW ‘s three point shooting obviously with Grandison’s a little more of a cutter/slasher. Both are also excellent on the offensive glass and in the middle of the zone offense.

The flow and/or matchups of each game will sometimes favor Jacob and sometimes favor DMW - and that’s where the adjustments come in to play.

That said, I think it’s telling by the volume of minutes and who is on the floor more late in games who Underwood trusts more.

Walkon on March 18, 2021 @ 09:30 AM

There is a “don’t” in the second sentence of my reply which does NOT belong. That should read:

To your point, I think Jacob and DMW are a good change of pace from the wing and each provide something which fits into what we do.

San Joaquin on March 18, 2021 @ 10:11 AM

Fantastic read and viewing.

gmotil on March 18, 2021 @ 10:13 AM

So our biggest weakness on defense is when the other team has a big that is a threat from deep. Do we have any counter for that? I'm very uninformed, but it seems from those clips that Kofi/Giorgi staying around the free throw line is kind of in no man's land. Not high enough to really effect the three, but not low enough to help on drives.

Is the counter to just stay by the free throw line and hope that they don't over commit too much, or are able to recover quickly enough to at least have some effect?

Walkon on March 18, 2021 @ 12:25 PM

Yep that is the vulnerability of drop coverage.

You can bring help from other areas on the floor but ultimately you have to pick your poison just like you would if you were trapping the screens.

Against OSU would you rather allow Liddell to shoot from three or allow Washington/Walker to get to the rim. Three points vs two, but Liddell has yet to prove he has a consistent three point shot. He shot OSU back into the game in Columbus but he shot them out of the game in Indy.

But I do agree a million percent that you don’t want to get stuck in no mans land on the drop. I trust Underwood to address that.

gmotil on March 18, 2021 @ 01:55 PM

Thanks for the response! Glad to know that I wasn't too far off

BanTheCharge on March 18, 2021 @ 10:34 AM

Almost came out of my chair watching the last 2 lobs in transition.

Is it Friday yet??????

tgb on March 18, 2021 @ 12:48 PM

I was at the Final Four in 89, and we were one block out from going to the Championship game. I still say we were the best team there, and Michigan got hot at the right time. Then we came close in 05. Well lets get this thing done, and I'll consider it a great retirement present.

BriCrozier on March 18, 2021 @ 01:50 PM

When Illinois has the ball: I think we're going to see a lot of zone defenses since we're still not a great three-point shooting team and, especially in the second half of games (Not as much in the first half since teams will want to avoid foul trouble then), a lot of Hack-A-Kofi.

When the other team has the ball: I think we're going to see pick and rolls, especially if the other team has either a guard that can penetrate well or a big capable of shooting from outside. I also think we'll see teams go aggressively right at Kofi to try to get him in foul trouble.

Axllini on March 18, 2021 @ 02:36 PM

In the BTT Champ game, especially in the 2nd half, our drop coverage was exposed over and over by CJ Walker and Man-on-Fire Washington as they kept the trailing guard behind them long enough to attack once Kofi/Giorgi retreated, or made it obvious they weren't going to challenge at the rim. I was frustrated that we seemingly made no adjustments as they ran the same set over and over and over with success. I admit Walker made some circus shots, but I thought we needed a change to throw off their rhythm. More of a dig from the wing or preemptive dive from the opposite wing to begin a defensive help rotation??

Axllini on March 18, 2021 @ 02:39 PM

Also, this was a great piece! Excellent clips laying out the variations from both sides of the ball.

illinizeeman on March 18, 2021 @ 04:13 PM


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