Riding a two-game winning streak, the Illini have looked like a different team over the past week. Granted, Indiana could not hit free throws to win and Rutgers is not exactly Duke, but for a team mired at 0-8 in conference play, back-to-back wins may be what cures the itch for Illini fans.
When it comes to Big Ten basketball, the season is a marathon, not a sprint. I know that statement is a bit cliche, but there is truth to it. This holds especially true when looking at your chances to make the NCAA Tournament. The way you play in the second half of conference play always has more weight to it than the first half of conference play. That is human nature.
The Illini are still very much alive in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament berth, assuming they keep winning and can hit that 20-win plateau, but that would take a 7-1 finish in Big Ten play AND at least one win in the Big Ten Tournament.
So what does Coach Brad Underwood’s squad need to do in order to leave Columbus on Sunday with a win?
Smart Shot Selection
Illinois shot an impressive 56.9 percent from the field versus Rutgers. When you factor in that 11 of their made shots were from behind the arc, it is no wonder the Illini won as big as they did.
With one third of their 91 points coming from three land, Illinois showed that they have the potential to run the offense that Brad Underwood has been trying to implement. Quick, high shot volume offense is something Underwood is known for.
People will be quick to dismiss the game as ‘Well, it was against Rutgers’. Rutgers is still ranked No. 17 in the Kenpom adjusted defense rating. The Scarlet Knights are no slouch on the defensive side of the ball, and yet, the Illini were able to take them to the woodshed.
Illinois will get another shot to prove their offensive prowess against Ohio State, who is ranked No. 20 in that same statistical category.
Practice What You Preach
If the Illini need to practice smart shot selection to come away victorious against the Buckeyes, they will need to defend the smart shot selection as well. On the season, Ohio State shoots just below 50 percent from the field with an average of seven made threes per game.
The Illini’s suffocating defense may be their best friend on Sunday as they try to stop the stellar trio of Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson. Turnovers and points off said turnovers will be key, and the Illini will need all the help they can get.
Make The Right Adjustments
This is more indicting on the coaching staff. If something is not working, they have to be quick to make the change. The lineup changes Underwood has made over the past few games have been spot on. Having Kipper Nichols starting has given this team a spark on offense.
Mark Smith is still growing as a player, and I truly believe in the future he could be one of the best in the Big Ten. Underwood has limited his minutes as he continues to learn how to be as competitive in Big Ten play as possible. Look for Underwood to make wholesale changes if necessary in order to come away victorious Sunday.
Three straight, right?
Illinois looks like a different team over the last two weeks, and they have shown they can win when the pressure is on. I predicted the Illini to beat the Knights by 17 in a bold predictions, and here’s another one: Look for Illinois to continue its winning ways 77-76 and get the best win of the season on the road.