The Start. Holy Cow. That was undoubtedly the best 10 minutes of basketball the Illini have played this season. They looked like a team who had complete faith in their system and knew exactly how they were going to attack their opponent. It also helped that shots were falling. Illinois forced 7 turnovers in those first ten minutes and played with great tempo.
Te’Jon Lucas deserves a lot of praise, as he was in complete control of the entire game up until the 10 minute mark. He was playing great defense, getting the ball in his hands quickly and finding open teammates running down the floor in transition. When Lucas started to stumble, the wheels started to fall off the entire operation.
Mark Alstork was a killer in those first ten minutes. There was no hesitation in his game and he was hunting for his shot. Oftentimes, it’s worrisome if a player is looking for his own shot too much, but in Alstork’s case, it’s what Illinois needs. With Illinois’ limited scoring options, they need Alstork to be aggressive and confident in the offensive end. He had his best game in the orange and blue yesterday scoring a season high 18 points on 6-11 from the field. His 11 field goals attempted tied a season high. It is only the second time he has had double digit shot attempts this season. For comparisons sake, last year at Wright State, Alstork had double-digit shot attempts in 28 of 32 games. He is 10-of-18 from the field his last two games, including 4-of-10 from three. That’s the solid wing production that the Illini desparately need and brought him in to do.
Before we get onto the bad and mostly ugly, it should be mentioned that this team fought hard to start the second half after an embarrassing end to the first half — the theme all year outside of the Wisconsin game. Brad Underwood’s team plays hard and does not quit on each other or the coaches.
First off, the Value City Arena either needs a new shot clock or a new shot clock operator. There were at least three instances when the game needed to be stopped because there was something wrong with the shot clock. Let’s sharpen that up, Buckeyes.
Onto the Illini. Leron Black needs to be better. Black has shown great development over his four years — one as a redshirt — in Champaign. He’s found a way to become a polished scorer as an undersized power forward in the Big Ten. He’s become one of the best, if not the best, players in the program, but his teammates and coaches need more from him.
Black played 26 minutes against Ohio State, and it was only the third time he has played over 25 minutes in the Illini’s last nine games dating back to Jan. 3rd when Big Ten play started back up against Minnesota. His big-minute games were the blowout loss at Wisconsin (28 low-stress minutes) and the first Big Ten win over Indiana (32 minutes), the only game he’s played over 30 minutes in this nine-game Big Ten stretch. Underwood wants and needs Black on the court for 30-34 minutes every night at the 4 or 5 in small ball lineups.
Black’s offense is not the problem. He is incredibly efficient on the offensive end and shooting 59 percent in his last 9 games dating back to Jan. 3rd. Foul trouble has kept his minutes down, as it has most of his career. Black has ended six of his last nine games with either four or five fouls, including fouling out three times, and it’s painfully obvious how much trouble the Illini have in their halfcourt sets without Black as a scoring threat. Down the stretch in the second half, the only offensive hope was Trent Frazier or Mark Alstork going one on one.
Black also needs to do a better job on the glass. As the team’s best rebounder he should take it personally when his squad gets outrebounded 45-22 and he only grabs four boards. Illinois is undersized, but OSU’s size advantage was not nearly as dramatic as the Illini have seen against other B1G opponents. Since Jan. 3rd, Black is averaging only 3.8 rebounds per game and has only had games of at least five rebounds twice in that stretch. Illinois simply does not have the personnel to cope with Leron Black underachieving on the glass.
Black can be one of the best forwards in the Big Ten. The Illini need his offense, defense and rebounding. In order for this team team to grow and win a few games to round out the season, he needs to find a way to stay on the floor, and impact the game in multiple ways.
The 10 minutes that came after the first 10 minutes.
First Half Recap— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 4, 2018
Illinois first 10 minutes: 30 points
Illinois last 10 minutes: 0 points pic.twitter.com/8XUE2svbed
That was maybe the weirdest half of basketball I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been watching every Illinois basketball game for nearly the last 20 years. I don’t even know how it’s possible to not even luck into a basket or a free throw for that long.
The most disappointing part of the drought was how soft Illinois became with the ball. Ohio State ramped up their energy and gave Illinois a taste of their own medicine, and the Illini could not handle it. The Illini were letting Buckeye defenders take the ball at the top of the key, and that led to multiple easy runouts.
That leads us to the ugliest aspect of yesterday’s game: Transition Defense. I’d expect Underwood to bring an extra treadmill into Ubben for practice this week. The fast breaks after live ball turnovers are one thing, but the Buckeyes had multiple fast breaks off defensive rebounds where they simply outhustled Illinois down the court.
Underwood’s motto is "Everyday Guys". Yesterday, as well as the Iowa game, are great examples of how important every possession and decision is to the outcome of the game. If Illinois scores just five points in the last ten minutes instead of zero, that greatly helps its chances down the stretch.
An eight-point loss on the road against the No. 17 team in the country is nothing to be ashamed of. The frustration comes from the context of the game and seeing that this team does have what it takes to win a game like that.
If you’ve made it this far I’ll leave you with a sad song that’s been stuck in my brain after watching yesterday’s game. I hope we can have those first 10 minutes for the next 10 years: