Illinois suffered its first setback on the season Wednesday night, falling to Baylor 82-69 in Indianapolis. Coming in with much excitement around this matchup, it lived up to its heavy weight billing with stifling defense on both sides and scoring coming from a variety of players on both sides.
Illinois has much to improve upon heading into a rugged Big Ten schedule and a tough matchup with Duke, but this game could be a catalyst for later success down the road.
Let’s break this one down.
The first half held most of the positives for the Illini.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili was a huge lift, leading all scorers with 13 points in the first half and finished with 15. His offensive production and rebounding kept the Illini in it despite the foul trouble for Kofi Cockburn and off nights for Miller and Dosunmu. Curbelo came off the bench and gave Illinois an offensive spark with his nifty ball handling and passing amid Baylor’s strong defense, finishing with 11 points and 4 assists. Coleman Hawkins provided a spark with a big block and tough rebounding as well.
The Illini’s strong team defense held two of Baylor’s big three — Jared Butler and Macio Teague — to a combined 10-28 (0-6 from three) from the floor in this one. As a team, Baylor shot a paltry 28.6% from three in the first half and just 36.4% overall, driven by the Illini’s defensive effort. The Illini held their own on the boards in the first half, edging Baylor on the boards 26-19, and were down by just a single point at halftime.
While Teague and Butler struggled on this night, Adam Flagler and Davion Mitchell really picked things up for Bears, finishing with 18 and 15 respectively and a combined 6-11 from three. Mitchell also steadied the ship for Baylor offensively, dishing out 7 assists and created opportunities with 2 steals.
Defensively, Illinois really struggled to counter the versatility and speed of Baylor’s wings. The Illini were always a step slow in defending the pick and roll, and sloppy closeouts on the perimeter gave many drives to the basket and kick out threes to Mitchell and Flagler. Illini bigs were forced into tough switches on the perimeter, plaguing Cockburn and Bezhanishvili with frequent fouls from slow recoveries. The loss of Cockburn for long stretches allowed Baylor to probe the paint and pick apart the Illini.
Offensively, Illinois never got into a rhythm with Baylor’s stifling on-ball defense. Every shot was contested, ball handlers were double-teamed at the top on screen and rolls, and help-side defense came early and often to shut down drives to the paint. Baylor was able to switch most of the ball exchanges on the perimeter, creating many stagnant possessions and ill-advised shots deep into the shot clock. As a result, Miller and Dosunmu finished just 8-29 combined from the field. Baylor was determined to not let the Illini’s big three beat them (Miller, Dosunmu, and Cockburn) and forced production to come from less reliable sources like Bezhanishvili. Their veteran savvy and experience showed in executing this game plan for the full 40 minutes.
The Illini have the opportunity to right the ship and go into conference play on a high note, starting with their matchup with UT-Martin on Saturday. Illinois has to clean up some things defensively with its switching and recovery on the perimeter; stay in better position on their closeouts on shooters; and finishing its strong boxouts by attacking rebounds with both hands.
Offensively, they need to get Miller and Dosunmu going early with more catch and shoot opportunities and open driving lanes with better spacing and more fluid offensive sets with off ball cutting and screening. Cleaning up their screen and roll game with better passing out of the double team will be key to finding opportunities for other perimeter players and easy looks in the post.
It’s a long season, and Underwood and staff will surely clean up these early season miscues. This veteran-laden group will stick together through this first bout of on-court adversity and continue its journey towards title contention with a bounce back performance on Saturday.