I’ll be honest I could only catch the occasional basketball game this season, so I could be really wrong about this, but I have some thoughts on the troubled Illini offense.
The root of the issue is one that I see stretching across the basketball world, and it’s the overemphasis on guard play. More specifically for Illinois it’s the dribble drive offense that Coach Groce employs.
Let me stop here to emphasize I love Coach Groce and what he’s done. I don’t want anyone else on the helm at this point. Great things are to come.
But. But, he really likes to use the dribble drive motion offense, which I have issues with.
In simple terms this offensive style needs these things to happen:
1. Create a four out, one in setup. Four players on the perimeter, one at the low block.
2. The ball handler has to breakdown his defender and create dribble penetration.
3. Exploit the moment where there are two Illini inside the perimeter and only one defender. If the ball handler can breakdown his defender and get to the paint, there will be himself and the player on the low block inside the perimeter, but only one defender at the low block. The defender on the inside has to either shift over or let the ball handler get an easy layup. If the defender shifts over, the ball handler can dump pass it to the Illini on the low block. Easy open dunk. If a defender comes down from the perimeter to help, the ball handler can kick it out to the perimeter and there’s an open 3.
The key to this is ATTACK. Love layups, like threes. No jump shots in theory (I write with an eyeroll). The issue with the system is it places a lot of emphasis on players being able to create dribble penetration on their own. So what if you can’t do that? Or what if you have players that try to shoot threes immediately (Tracey Abrams!)? You end up with an anemic offense and you get to hear a lot of clanks of the ball smacking the back rim.
***As a side note, this is also the reason why I am still totally baffled by Cliff Alexander’s reason to join Kansas instead of us. He reasoned that he joined Kansas because Bill Self would get him to the next level. Of course he will. Of course you can get to the NBA from Kansas, but will you maximize your potential? Maybe not. With Bill Self, Cliff will likely be allowed to do his thing on the low block and over power defenders as he has been doing in high school. But his low post game is still pretty raw; focused on physicality over finesse. This will be less effective in college, compared to him running over high school stickmen, but still effective. He’ll average 8-12 points a game (assuming Joel Embiib heads to the draft and leaves a spot in the starting lineup open for Cliff). But when he gets to the NBA, and has to play bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced people on a nightly basis? A 6 foot 9 man-child will be and always has been out matched. Had he come here, Coach would allow him plenty of time in isolation on the low block to develop his post-game, but also develop him to a stretch 4 (a power forward that can hit the three, which is vital for the dribble drive motion offense). He would have been taught to hit the corner 3 with consistency, and then he would have a real weapon even in the Spartan battlefield of the NBA. So Cliff will make it into the NBA as a lottery pick, but if he doesn’t undergo a revelation in his game, he will struggle. I still wish him the best of luck.***
Anyway, the dribble drive motion offense can be really effective, but it’s simplistic and relies on getting just the right people. So the long term solution is to find players that can break down defenders in isolation. That’s why Tyler Ennis, Demetrius Jackson, and Quentin Snider, would have been enormous gets. And one will come. But what do we do until then? And what do we do after that player is gone? Maybe the system could use some tweaks.
***Another side note. I noticed Illinois went from an extremely complicated offense that Bruce Weber employed to a very simplistic one that Coach Groce uses. However, both have found the same issue. If you don’t have the right people for your system, your system will fail. Weber walked into a situation with the right people. Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head had the basketball IQ to work the system: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJf3gnNEB3M. All of that ball movement is lethal against any defense, especially Northwestern’s "We’ll use our brains to beat them" 2-3 zone, as it just wears defenders down while limiting our own players’ movement, and an open shot will come to those who are patient. D-Will, D-Brown, and Luther were also athletic enough to make plays when all else failed, but it wasn’t their initial reaction. This was less the case with Demetri Mccamey and that squad, and it just didn’t work with Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson where the offense turned into a "I GOT THE BALL! I’M GONNA THROW IT!" system. I honestly think we pressured Bruce to recruit players that didn’t fit his system. Patient "pass first" players who fit into Bruce’s offense have a tendency to get overlooked in the ESPN 100 which prefers the athletic and the high scorers. Illinois pressured him to recruit these players, which he did, and ended up with a roster not matching the system. With what's left from Weber’s recruiting, and a cruel recruiting world, Coach Groce is stuck with a similar issue.***
I could write about this for ages, but if you stuck with me this long, I imagine you’re exhausted by my rant. So I’ll take a break. Thanks for giving me a chance to get this off my chest The Champaign Room. You guys are awesome!