With Northwestern on the docket tonight, Illini fans are hungry for some quality basketball. They haven't seen it in awhile.
After Saturday's loss at Wisconsin, it's possible the Illini faithful have seen both the worst this season's Fighting Illini have to offer (not on a football field) and their best. Nothing can be worse than their performance against the Badgers. It can only be equally bad. On the scoreboard, the game was never close. At no point in the entire 40 minutes was an Illini victory even imaginable. Visually, the game was even worse. The offense was stagnant. Shots were forced. The defense was porous. And, in the words of John Groce, there was zero "competitive spirit". It was a totally demoralizing afternoon.
December 8 was much more enjoyable.
The Gonzaga game is Illinois' best performance of the season, although the win against Ohio State has a case as well. Against the Bulldogs, the Illini walked into a hostile environment against a team many analysts still believe are Final Four contenders, and won. Convincingly. Gonzaga has yet to suffer another defeat. What has changed for Illinois since that day? Why are we seemingly unable to replicate that performance?
Let's look at the tape.
What the Illini have struggled with lately has been clear just from watching the games. It's been discussed on here several times, so I won't rehash it. Instead, I'll only focus on the offensive play in the second half of the Gonzaga game.
Good Offensive Sets
(52:48) - This possession best exemplifies the type of productive offense Illinois ran on this night.
Brandon Paul dribbled the ball up the court. Lately, that in itself, as opposed to Tracy Abrams starting the offensive sets, has led to a pass no closer to the basket, another pass no closer to the basket, a final meaningless pass, then a forced 3-pointer. But not in Spokane.
Paul keeps his momentum within the offense. Each dribble and each step have a purpose. He dribbles to the right, and Nnanna Egwu pops up to set a screen at the top of the key. The offense around them is in full motion. Egwu slips the screen and sprints toward the hoop, leaving his defender with Paul. Mycheal Henry's defender then must pick up Egwu. The double team at the top of the key cannot recover in time. Paul finds Henry, who has set himself up wide open behind the arc, and Henry knocks down the three. Picture perfect.
This wasn't the lone good offensive possession of the night. It was only one of many. And since Brandon Paul facilitated many of them, the offense will be discussed further in the next section.
Brandon Paul Let's The Game Come To Him
When I say I let the game come to him, I mean that he doesn't force the offense by means of closely defended drives and shots. When he drives, there is a lane, and when he shoots, there is separation. The best example of this point comes around the 1 hour, 11 minute mark of the video.
(1:11:52) - Paul takes a pass from Abrams early in the offensive set and surveys the defense. He dribbles back left, looks for Egwu who has slipped a screen in hopes of getting an open shot. The pass is not there, so Paul holds back. He dribbles, draws a double team, then dribbles back further. Beautifully, he does not panic. He does not try to miraculously escape. He remains calm and passes to an open Bertrand across the court. Bertrand passes back to Abrams, who passes back to Paul, who now sees a driving lane, splits the defense into the lane and draws a foul.
Too many times, BP drives when the lane isn't there. Against Gonzaga, he was patient and his patience paid off. The better selection of shots Paul settled for, the better chance he had of making them. And after knocking down a few buckets, he gained momentum. He got hot. He started hitting more shots. He started facilitating a well-oiled offense. When Paul is playing at the level he played against the Bulldogs, the Illini are infinitely more dangerous.
That momentum led him to the game's final two and a half minutes, where he converted, arguably, Illinois' two biggest shots.
(1:32:20) - Paul's and-one layup against Kelly Olynyk to extend the lead to seven.
(1:36:30) - Paul decides to play like Kemba Walker and puts the game on ice with this dagger 3-pointer.
Pace of Play
Speed, speed, speed. This was the most important aspect of Illinois' performance in Spokane, and it is the aspect that is noticeably missing from recent games. The Fighting Illini dictate the pace of the game. Again, the following is the best example.
(53:00) The guards get the ball up the floor with urgency. Following a Kelly Olynyk driving basket, ESPN takes the camera off of the full court view and flashes to Olynyk as he runs down the floor. The announcer say something about how Olynyk is an unstoppable scorer (and they're correct). When they flash back to the full court view, Tracy Abrams already has dribbled up to the top of the key, takes one dribble and is in the lane. From there, it's just Tracy being Tracy, but getting the offense to that point is usually the problem. When the ball is moving too fast the TV cameras, let alone for Gonzaga's defense to setup, that task becomes much easier.
The fast pace can be seen most clearly at the following times:
56:00 (Illinois scores with 29 on shot clock)
1:11:55 (Inbound and attack)
1:22:38 (Inbound and attack; Great screen by Sam McLaurin)
The quick tempo offense was effective in creating good offensive possessions, finding open shots and drawing fouls, but perhaps the most valuable result was on the other end of the floor: Illinois dictated the pace. Gonzaga got out of their gameplan. They stopped feeding Olynyk in the post, despite Illinois inability to stop him, and began running and gunning just like the Illini. They shot early in shot clocks. They jacked up 3-pointers. They transformed into a much more beatable team. This can be seen at the following times:
There are times in the game where Gonzaga plays their game, gets the ball to Olynyk and lets him score (1:19:40). And their are sets where the Illini do their all too familiar routine of dribble around, dribble some more and force a hopeless shot (1:19:50). But for the most part, Illinois dictates the pace, and therefore, plays with an advantage.
If there's one thing to be learned from revisiting the Gonzaga game, it is the importance of speed. This team is more than capable of competing with anyone.