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Three Adjustments Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball Can Make To Save Its Season

There’s still time.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still early in the season, but the promise of a top-25 team that’s a lock for the NCAA Tournament has already slipped away for the Illinois Fighting Illini.

However, there’s still plenty of basketball left for Brad Underwood’s team to salvage a berth in the Big Dance that would end a once-unthinkable six-season drought. The wheels came off Thursday night as the Illini unraveled in front of Michigan State, but the engineers watching at home have some ideas on how the crew chief might repair this thing and get us back in the race.

Alan Griffin Must Start

Out in Twitterland, we’ve observed numerous Illini fans clamoring for this one, and there are multiple reasons for that. The most quantifiable is that he’s been more effective than Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams this season, averaging 9 points per game on 50.6% shooting, despite averaging a mere 16.5 minutes off the bench. For comparison, Frazier averages 9.2 points in 28.5 minutes while Williams has put up a dismal 3.4 in 21.1 minutes. Considering that an ineffective offense has been at the heart of our last two disheartening losses (Mizzou and MSU), it’s high time Griffin’s role expanded.

This goes deeper than the box score. When he finally got some minutes late in the Missouri game, Griffin showed more competitive fire than any Illini out on the court. In the aforementioned MSU game, Griffin was all hustle even as the rout began in earnest in the second half. If Underwood really does hold “winning culture and attitude” in the highest regard, Griffin should be getting starter minutes after what he’s shown this year.

Stagger Kofi and Giorgi’s Minutes

The bold experiment of having Giorgi Bezhanishvili play the 4 has yet to bear fruit, and as a consequence the offense has suffered so badly that the defensive improvement from last year is virtually erased. Kofi Cockburn is a force of nature in the post, but Giorgi had great success for a true freshman in that same spot last year.

This seems like a simple solution: Kofi starts at center and Giorgi backs him up. This doesn’t minimize Giorgi as much as you might think at first glance. Underwood has a very short hook for players who pick up a second foul in the first half. In games where the officials quickly give Cockburn two quick fouls, imagine a fresh Giorgi coming in to replace him.

This also virtually eliminates the possibility of both of them fouling out. By playing Giorgi at the 4, Underwood tried to concoct a recipe to put his best five players on the floor at the same time. It might be time to try an approach that maximizes what his players are best at, lest Giorgi end up like a reverse Michael Finke.

Strip Away Some Structure

The current offense allows for very little creativity. One of two things happen on every halfcourt possession:

  1. We start in the base spread with two cutters who never receive an open pass. Then we throw it to the big on an elbow for a dribble handoff which turns the possession into a scrambled, crowded mess.
  2. As of late we have ditched the base spread for the more free flowing dribble-weave action at the top of the key. This effectively burns clock and results in a missed defensive assignment one out of four times. It should be a wrinkle, not your base offensive set.

Underwood needs to let Ayo, Feliz, Grffin and Frazier make more creative decisions with the basketball. Initiating offense with a simple isolation or pick and roll can work when you have skilled guards. This can happen with more spacing if you have a lineup of Ayo, Trent, Griffin, Kipper, Kofi. Let Kofi be the Clint Capela to Ayo or Trent’s James Harden for a few possessions a game.

The offense has stalled to an incredibly slow pace, and it appears to be by design. Illinois needs more possessions to start in transition, even if they don’t finish with transition points. If they get out and run it will give them more time to have secondary and tertiary attacks to the basket on a single possession.

If Kofi is thinking pass first when he gets the ball in the post there should be plenty of opportunities for more open threes. Trent Frazier, Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones’ primary offensive responsibility should be floating around the three-point line to receive kick out passes from Ayo, Kofi and Giorgi when the defense collapses on them in the paint.

Instead we seem to hellbent on sticking to our offensive script, which the opposing defenses have become all to familiar with.

What changes do you think Underwood needs to make? Let us know in the comments!