On Sunday, Illinois snuck out of State Farm Center with a win against Northwestern. The Illini continued their trend of starting hot and losing steam in the second half. Despite almost blowing a Quad 2 game, Kofi Cockburn bailed Illinois out against the Wildcats for the second time.
What We Knew
The book has been out on Illinois for the better part of this season. Teams know that they can’t let Kofi Cockburn beat them in the post. Kofi’s passing has improved this year, but his mid-range jumper still isn’t there. Because of that, he’s been susceptible to post traps, even when he’s not double-teamed.
In the last month, Illinois has struggled in the second half. A big part of this is that they rely heavily on threes, and they just aren’t making them toward the end of games. Illinois gets 36.9% of its points from outside the arc, the most in the Big Ten. That’s okay – Purdue and Ohio State also rely heavily on the threes, both hovering around 34%.
In its last four games, Illinois has only made 10 three-pointers in the second half, as opposed to 25 in the first half. This resulted in a field goal drought of 6:48 in the second half at Purdue. Maybe the Illini just aren’t as fresh in the second half as they are at the start of games. Regardless, teams are taking Illinois’ shooters out of the game in the second half.
Northwestern doesn’t have anyone that can take Kofi one-on-one, so it was clear that they were going to double and triple him. They combined their double-teams with effective post traps, leading to a career-worst six turnovers for Kofi. Early in the season, Kofi was passing quickly out of double teams. He didn’t pass out of the double effectively against Northwestern, but it didn’t matter as he scored eight points in the final 5:26 to secure the win.
I know you're watching the Super Bowl, but when you have a moment, listen to @TylerCott's question and Brad Underwood's answer (re: officiating & Kofi). pic.twitter.com/Fgfr02AFxh— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) February 14, 2022
While Kofi was able to overcome his woes in the second half, Illinois’ guards were not. They went 1-of-11 from three, and Andre Curbelo was a non-factor again. Trent Frazier continued to struggle, but he still needed more reps. As beloved as Da’Monte Williams is, he shouldn’t be getting more shots than Trent.
Classic Da'Monte Williams. It's not an #Illini game until he whips the ball off an opponent to save possession. (Except this case he just did it for fun I think).— Scott Richey (@srrichey) February 13, 2022
Despite Northwestern coming back from 18 down, it never really felt like the Wildcats would win. Illinois had a great defensive game, holding Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Pete Nance to 11-of-39 from the floor. And of course, Illinois has Kofi.
What We Learned
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the game on Sunday was the emergence of RJ Melendez. His transition dunk in the second half got the Illinois fans riled up, and he was key down the stretch, making all six of his free throws. Underwood continued to praised RJ in his press conference, emphasizing the importance of height and athleticism on the wing.
The wing is one of the weaknesses of the Illini. For much of the 2010s, Illinois had plenty of wings but couldn’t recruit point guards or big men. That trend has reversed now. It makes teams like Ohio State a bad matchup for Illinois, as they have a ton of big guards and small forwards who can stretch the floor. Melendez and Luke Goode, players with length that can stretch the floor, will be critical down the stretch.