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Illinois needs to keep playing to its strengths

The Illini can’t fall into bad habits offensively if it wants to win marquee games.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A split will have to do for the Illini in this loaded week of hoops.

Illinois left Knoxville empty handed, ultimately splitting a pair of Top-20 tests against Florida Atlantic and Tennessee in a highly anticipated stretch of action.

The overwhelming feeling coming out of it all should be positive. Illinois physically overwhelmed a team that was playing in the Final Four eight months ago and picked up a resume win that will stand strong all season. And despite a loss on Saturday, the Illini hung tough with a true national contender in the Volunteers on the road.

That said, Saturday’s game was an example of what can happen when the Illini fall back into their bad habits.

Coming off wins over Rutgers and FAU, it felt like the blueprint had been laid out for this team’s success on offense. Illinois placed an emphasis on attacking the basket, creating kick out opportunities and getting its best players favorable matchups. For two encouraging victories, the Illini were flowing and scoring opportunities were coming easy.

Against Tennessee, some frustrating tendencies returned. The 79 points doesn’t tell the story very well; Illinois did not have its best day on the offensive end.

The Illini settled far too often and struggled mightily to get to the rim against the physical Volunteer defense. Thirty-six of their 65 total field goal attempts came from three, to the tune of just a 25% mark (9-for-36).

The difference in shot selection is apparent when breaking down this season’s four three-point outputs against high major opponents:

  • vs Marquette: 11-33 from three (33%)
  • at Rutgers: 9-21 from three (43%)
  • vs Florida Atlantic: 8-20 from three (40%)
  • at Tennessee: 9-36 from three (25%)

On a related note, how about the points in the paint totals from those four games:

  • vs Marquette: 20 points in the paint
  • at Rutgers: 40 points in the paint
  • vs Florida Atlantic: 48 points in the paint
  • at Tennessee: 24 points in the paint

Pretty obvious what the winning formula has been right? In wins, Illinois is attacking and owning the paint battle. In turn, that’s forcing the defense to collapse and help, creating higher quality looks from three on a smaller volume. In losses, Illinois is going away from its biggest strength and settling for threes, many of which are tougher and low percentage shots.

Now, it wasn’t necessarily all the Illini’s fault on Saturday. Tennessee ranks fifth in the country in defensive efficiency according to KenPom for a reason. They clog up gaps and take away driving lanes to try to keep everything perimeter oriented for opposing offenses. Illinois definitely fell victim to that, as Terrence Shannon and Marcus Domask didn’t see the same driving angles and scoring opportunities that they did on Tuesday night at the Garden.

Sometimes though, you just need to force the issue when you have the personnel this Illinois team does. The Illini became too stagnant and unwilling to attack for long stretches of the game and the result was a couple of timely Tennessee scoring runs to gain some separation. There’s no question that Illinois missed a handful of good looks from beyond the arc, but there were also a handful that were forced, out of rhythm and the result of broken possessions.

The reality of this team is that it doesn’t have a true point guard they can trust to break down defenses and create offense. What they do have, however, is positional size across the floor and athletic, physical guys who are dangerous when getting downhill.

Obviously, that starts with Terrence Shannon. Tennessee matched up well with him and was able to bottle him up, limiting the Illini’s go-to offensive threat. But the key to raising Illinois’ floor this season is going to be finding ways to win even when its star is having an off night.

Credit Quincy Guerrier and Coleman Hawkins for knocking down shots early to keep pace with the Volunteers throughout the first half, but that’s usually just not going to last for a full 40 minutes in front of 21,600 on the road. Illinois needs to play to its strengths consistently if it wants to win games like Saturday’s.

This team is good. How good will depend on its ability to do just that.