With Ayo Dosunmu in the NBA, the Illini team most of us thought we were all going to see this year just made its first appearance.
After a rocky showing for the short-handed Illini against UT-Rio Grande Valley, Illinois picked up a nice win on Monday night at home against Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup. With Andre Curbelo and Austin Hutcherson already ruled out, Brad Underwood still wasn’t sure whether Jacob Grandison and Trent Frazier could go in this one, but fortunately for the Illini, the latter two came off the bench to play significant minutes to help steady the ship.
Threes were going in, post passing improved as the game wore on, and dribble penetration put pressure on the Irish defense in a way that we hadn’t seen in previous games. It was an encouraging sign for an Illini team that has still been working to find itself amidst a stretch where it’s lacked its full complement of players.
What Went Right
Kofi Cockburn (28 points, 8 rebounds) picked up right where he left off against UTRGV, imposing his will on smaller defenders and forcing perimeter players to crash down and help, creating good looks for perimeter shooters like Alfonso Plummer, Grandison and Frazier. His size forced Irish forward Nate Lazewski out of the game down the stretch, taking a key offensive mismatch off the board for the Irish with his handle and perimeter shooting against the slower Cockburn.
Plummer also came to play, finishing with 21 points, including 3 three-pointers.
Frazier’s presence really set the tone defensively for Illinois, bringing greater energy and effort to their team defense, as well as offensively by leading the team in assists with 6.
Da’Monte Williams once again did a nice job handling point guard duties, finishing with 5 assists and continuing to do the dirty work defensively picking up charges and securing 6 defensive rebounds.
Grandison also provided continuity and stability that was lacking in his absence, pouring in 3 three-pointers and dishing out 4 assists.
Freshmen Luke Goode and RJ Melendez saw more significant minutes Monday and were able to make a nice impact with complementary scoring and playmaking. When the Illini embrace an methodical inside/outside attack with drives and flashes into the lane, good things will happen in the flow of their offense with the athletes and shooters that they have, and that really showed.
What Needs Work
The Illini are still slow in getting back in transition and continue to allow too many easy looks in those situations. No one stops the ball, and the momentum the Illini were building gets thwarted by an open three or easy layup.
Their on-ball defense, with the exception of Frazier, also left little to be desired, as perimeter defenders were often getting stuck trailing behind from ball screens or just flat getting beat off simple crossovers that led to easy drives and points in the paint.
Kofi Cockburn’s weaknesses defensively were noteworthy in this game, as he was tasked with guarding a perimeter-oriented big man in Lazewski, and how Underwood goes about hiding those weaknesses in future matchups — whether that’s through different individual defensive assignments or scheme changes altogether — will be key to maximizing his effectiveness and keeping him out of foul trouble.
Offensively, the Illini can be impatient at times when looking for a shot, frequently hoisting up a contested three without reversing the ball or giving Cockburn a touch when he’s worked himself into deep paint position. Specifically Plummer, with his 3-for-11 from three and 5-for-15 overall shooting night, is cause for concern, as many of these contested, ill-advised shots compound problems by turning into transition opportunities for the opposition on the other end.
The team identity overall is still a work in progress when it comes to knowing who to turn to in key moments of the game, as the Illini no longer have their safety blanket in Ayo, who almost always came through when the Illini needed it. In what’s looking like another year of a deep and talented Big Ten, finding that identity with reliable, clutch time playmakers will be key for this Illinois team that has conference and national title aspirations.