At this point in the season, I'm pretty sure that most Illini fans would be able to say exactly how this game went without watching a single second. Illinois gets a lead in the first half, generates some short-lived hope, and blows up in the second, allowing the opponent to run away with the game as if was never even a contest. The Fighting Illini have had bad second half starts for as long as I can remember this season. The best teams are the ones that know how to make the Illini pay; Michigan and Notre Dame buried Illinois once the Illini started slipping away. Teams like Missouri and UIC just aren't talented enough to take advantage of these cold stretches, and as a result, the Illini found a way to win 5 straight before losing to Michigan in their Big Ten conference opener.
The Illini were led in this one by Kendrick Nunn with 23 points. Jalen Coleman-Lands had a nice first half showing with 11 but only managed 2 in the second. Malcolm Hill struggled all night long as he only mustered 11 points for his team. The junior hit just 3 of 11 field goals and clearly did not have it in him on Wednesday. Michigan had a career performance from Mark Donnal in the post who dropped 26 points and pulled in 9 boards. Caris LeVert was great as well, notching 22 points and 10 assists. After leading by 3 at halftime, Illinois allowed Michigan to go on a 9-2 run and re-take the lad; they wouldn't give that lead up for the rest of the game. So why does Illinois blow it in the second half game after game?
1. Illinois Doesn't Make Necessary Halftime Adjustments
It's as simple as that. We see Illinois struggling to generate offense in the half court in the first half; nothing changes coming out of the locker rooms. The Illini don't help on defense, leading to easy back door cuts and lay-ups for the Wolverines; Illinois doesn't adjust and allows even more easy buckets in the second half. Mark Donnal has a great first half for Michigan; the Illini don't shut him down and allow him to control the boards on both ends of the floor.
It's simple. As a basketball team, you need to make adjustments in the halftime locker room. That's what halftime is for. Michigan saw what the Illini were giving them in the first half (tough perimeter defense), and as a result, they drove the ball consistently in the second half, found cutters, and even started getting open looks from beyond the arc. Illinois relied on jump shooting in the first half, and when shots started clanking in the second, defense got lazy, ball movement got stagnant, and passes got sloppy. The Illini need a solution.
2. Teams Begin to Realize that Illinois Can Be Beat in The Post
With Michael Finke's scoring coming primarily from jumpshots, there isn't a lot of offense coming from the Illini in the paint. As a result, opponents can easily take advantage of the glass by simply boxing out shooters and forcing tough, contested shots. While the Illini weren't necessarily bad from the floor (43%), they don't rebound the ball well on the offensive end because they don't look to the post for any offense. As a result, Michigan was much better on the offensive glass, pulling down 13 boards in comparison to Illinois' 6.
The best way for Illinois to get offensive production in the halfcourt is to play through a post presence in either Maverick Morgan or Malcolm Hill. When Hill would post up his opponent, he'd have the option to fade away, back his opponent down, or kick out to an open jump shooter. This not only generates better ball movement and offensive flow, but it gives shooters step-in threes that they're much more likely to make. A perfect example of Illinois failing to utilize this game plan was when Aaron Jordan neglected Hill's post presence and took a contested jumper five feet behind the three point line late in the second half. Feed the post, and good things will happen.
3. Lack of Leadership
As much as I believe that Illinois' Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are very good leaders, I don't think that Illinois has a true captain that's keeping its players in line. Part of the problem resides in the loss of Tracy Abrams, but the Illini need to move on and find someone who can step up as that vocal presence sooner than later. Illinois needs someone who's going to make sure its team gets a good possession every time down the floor. Too many times, each player wants to play hero ball, and instead of making good passes and running a play, someone throws up a three.
Groce seems to be passive about getting on his guys for bad plays. If you ever watch Tom Izzo for Michigan State coach, he'll let you hear it if you make a bad play, and you can tell that he teaches his players out of those mistakes. John Groce on the other hand, has yet to show me much improvement from his team. A perfect example is the recurring problem of moving screens on offense. For all of Groce's tenure at Illinois, the Illini have been the kings of moving screens. Why can't they fix such a bad mistake that costs them possessions? You would think that Groce would be able to get on his guys in practice and rid that problem once and for all, but that hasn't been the case. All in all, it's been a tough year for Illinois thus far, and it only looks like its going to be an even longer season.