Bruce Weber used to say sometimes rebounding wasn’t about how tall you are, or how high you can jump, but rather what side of the train tracks you grew up on.
A nice sweeping anecdote that casts a wide stereotype about toughness, but I can’t find a better one. And as the socioeconomic description assumes being from the wrong side of the tracks can instill effort, aggression and pride to help one guy get a falling ball before another, the same concepts can apply to defense in general. Sometimes you just have to dig in, get low, and stop the man in front of you.
Beyond any fan complaints about coach Brad Underwood’s defensive philosophies, the Illini basketball team does not stop the man in front of them, and that’s the biggest inefficiency I see with the defense.
While the Illinois defense has been steadily improving throughout the year, and is rated 85th in the KenPom adjusted defensive rankings, the atrocious performance at Minnesota suggests the team is still leagues away from playing consistent defense. Minnesota centers beat Illinois guards off the dribble to get to the basket - that isn’t defensive philosophy, that’s pride and effort.
Underwood has made major strides in upgrading the team’s length and athleticism, as the freshman group of Ayo Dosunmu, Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane display coming off the bus. You don’t have to be Phil Jackson to watch Ayo and Tevian glide up and down the court with long fluid strides to realize they’re athletically superior to the plodding upperclassmen.
And playing really good defense does start with some raw materials. It helps to be tall, it helps even more to have long arms, and above all lateral quickness can make a defender an absolute nightmare. But, nothing without the “want to” to sit down on a defender and not let him dribble by.
From the current Illini team, there are some raw materials to work with, especially two pieces I want to see more of down the stretch. Alan Griffin and Samba Kane are both extremely long, fast and quick for their size — the types of kids that could become the defensive stalwarts that Underwood needs to meet ball handlers and anchor the key. With Illinois a magical sell your soul Big Ten Tourney run away from the tourney, they should continue to take minutes away from others.
One great way to earn some of those minutes would be forcing a ball-handler to stop a dribble drive and double back to give the ball to someone else.
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