The postseason is upon us and along with it the stage that Brad Underwood built this team to succeed in.
Based on the final games over the weekend, the Illini ended up with a tough draw facing the 10-seed Penn State in the Thursday night slot. The Nittany Lions have had the Illini’s number this season, winning both matchups by double-digits, buoyed by dominant perimeter shooting and Jalen Pickett’s interior dominance.
While the media frequently touts how difficult it is to beat a team three times, this Penn State team has all the pieces to make life for the Illini difficult once again and send them back to Champaign with an early round exit.
What can the Illini do differently to knock off the Nittany Lions for the first time this season and advance to a rematch with Northwestern on Saturday? Let’s get into it.
Don’t let the best player beat you.
In their last matchup, the Illini got buried single-handedly by star guard Jalen Pickett who went for 41 points, including 5 threes, most of the damage coming in the first half. The Illini have a habit of giving up big games to the other team’s best player, giving up over 30 to Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Iowa’s Tony Perkins, and Minnesota’s Jamison Battle.
The Illini need to do a better job being locked in and keeping track of where the best player is on the floor at all times and making their catches and shots more difficult. The Illini did an admirable job against Purdue’s Zach Edey in their last game, holding him to under his scoring average through effective doubling and help side rotations which fueled their second half comeback.
If the Illini can stop Penn State’s best in Pickett from going off again, that will be a good start to helping them come out on top.
Run shooters off of the three-point line.
This is Defense 101 against a strong shooting team. The Illini too frequently went underneath screens and got out of position defensively, leaving top shooters like Seth Lundy, Andrew Funk, and Miles Dread wide open from the perimeter. The Nittany Lions have made them pay early and often to the tune of 24 made threes on 46% shooting from deep.
Despite the Illini’s flair for the dramatic with their furious offensive comebacks as of late, no team can survive giving up an avalanche of perimeter shooting at that kind of clip. A key conceptual staple of Underwood’s defense is forcing teams into tough, contested twos with long athletic wing defenders and significant size inside with drop coverage with bigs.
If the Illini can execute defensively and funnel Penn State into their strong two point defense, they will have a good chance to come out on top.
Consistency is Key
Illinois has been a second half team all year and it hasn’t been more evident than in their most recent contests against Northwestern and Purdue.
The Illini have looked listless offensively and defensively in the first half finding themselves down 20+ in both contests, and it took furious efforts on both ends of the floor to make the contests competitive again.
This lack of response during these early moments in the game comes down to a need for stronger leadership and in game strategy from both the coaches and the senior leaders on the team. Underwood needs to do a better job stemming the tide when the opposition goes on a run and finding easy opportunities to get the energy, confidence, and momentum of the game back on the Illini’s side.
Leaders like Mayer and Shannon need to do a better job setting the tempo and responding with plays on both ends to keep the Illini in the game throughout.
Whether the Illini can develop the consistency that’s eluded them all year is anyone’s guess at this point.
Remember Your Identity
In their listless offensive performances against Northwestern (first matchup), Penn State (both times), or Ohio State, the Illini have consistently shot too many threes (especially bad ones), neglected to share the ball, and didn’t look to dribble drive to facilitate offense.
This played right into the hands of their Big Ten foe as it frequently led to long rebounds and helped ignite the offense for the other side.
When the Illini look to post up inside with Danika and drive with playmakers like Mayer, Hawkins, Shannon, and others, good things happen on offense.
When they run good offense, their defensive intensity ratchets up a few notches, and the long, rangy Illini defense starts to impose its will and dictate the tempo of the game. The Illini need fast paced game predicated on transition offense, high energy defense, and strong dribble penetration to create high octane offense.
If the Illini stay true to the blue print that Underwood put together, the sky is limit for their postseason hopes.
Illini fans will be on edge waiting to see which version of this Illini team will show up at the United Center on Thursday. The game of runs and clash of styles will be on between Penn State’s perimeter dominance and the Illini’s long, athletic, inside the arc attack.
It’s now or never and hopefully they can make the most of their undeniable talent in the season’s biggest moment.