clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Illinois can still be the Big Ten’s best team this season. Here’s how

Illinois fought hard against the Boilers. But there’s also some things they can learn.

David Pollak // TCR

Purdue remains the Big Ten’s top dog — for now.

In a heavyweight fight between top ten teams, it was the No. 1 Boilermakers who took home the victory in their building over the Illini, 83-78.

On the surface, a five-point loss at Mackey Arena is a result nobody should bat an eye at, especially in just the Illini’s third game since Terrence Shannon Jr.’s indefinite suspension. Despite Purdue jumping out to a commanding early lead, Illinois proved it belonged on the big stage and could wind up being a worthy challenger to the reigning Big Ten champions.

There were many opportunities for Purdue to run away with the game — whether that was early in the first half after starting the game on a 20-4 run or midway through the second half after building a lead of up to 21. But the Illini showcased their experience, maturity and resilience in battling back to make things interesting down to the final buzzer.

Marcus Domask — the Illini’s de facto “go-to” guy in the absence of Shannon — continued to shine with 26 points and single-handedly provided the late second half surge that kept Purdue on its toes.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Coleman Hawkins, while not mistake-free, made several key plays and displayed his massive impact on both ends of the court. Quincy Guerrier put together another in his string of double-doubles and Luke Goode provided some much-needed shot making at pivotal moments.

Overall, it was a continuation of many of the positive traits this team has shown through the season’s first two months. It’s connected, it’s balanced, and it’s filled with a roster of high-effort, experienced guys who refuse to go down without a fight.

All signs that point to a really damn good basketball team.

With that said, Purdue did exploit a few things on the Illini’s end that are going to force Brad Underwood and Co. to make some adjustments as the heat of conference play pushes forward.

For starters, an Illinois team that entered the game toward the top of the country in rebounding gave up 18 offensive rebounds.

Zach Edey grabbed five of them — fine. He’s going to do that to most teams. But to beat a team of Purdue’s caliber on the road, the 13 non-Edey offensive boards allowed were inexcusable.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Many of them led directly to Purdue second-chance points, which the Boilers had 21 of in total. A few corresponded to back-breaking threes that halted the Illini’s efforts to truly get over the hump and take control of the game.

For a team that boasts as much positional size as the Illini have on the floor at all times, they can’t afford to get beat so harshly on the glass.

Whether Illinois needs to crash the glass harder, shore up its box outs or simply play with better effort in that area, Friday night’s contest should hopefully be one of very few instances where the Illini fall on the short end of the rebounding margin in Big Ten play.

The other key difference in the game came due to a new wrinkle Matt Painter pulled out of his pocket.

Purdue began the game with Zach Edey guarding Ty Rodgers, leaving Rodgers wide open on the perimeter and allowing Edey’s 7-foot-4 frame to sit in the paint and protect the rim.

In Rodgers’ 13 minutes, Illinois as a team was -23 in the plus-minus category. In the 27 minutes he was off the floor, it was +18.

Many teams won’t be as effective at employing this strategy against Illinois because there’s only one Zach Edey. Still, this is a clear flaw in the Illini’s offense that features Rodgers as a lead guard — and many of the coaches the Illini are soon to see are likely paying a close eye to Friday night’s game film.

The Illini are going to have to find a way to combat the issue — and Brad Underwood has a few options to do so.

The most obvious is the one Underwood turned to for the majority of the second half against the Boilermakers. Justin Harmon subbed in for Rodgers, putting five capable shooters on the court for Illinois. Edey was forced to guard the perimeter which kept him primarily out of help position and opened the floor to allow Marcus Domask plenty of space to operate in one-on-one matchups.

Coleman Hawkins’ ability to stretch the floor is the Illini’s biggest matchup advantage and one of the biggest reasons why Illinois currently boasts the 6th ranked offensive efficiency in college basketball according to KenPom. That advantage is most effective when there’s four shooters spaced around him however, and to this point Rodgers isn’t one whatsoever.

Benching Rodgers completely is far from preferred, as his defense and rebounding will remain extremely valuable to the Illini’s efforts. But if other teams take Matt Painter’s approach against him, he’s going to have to find a counter.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois could be wise to use him similarly to the way Andre Jackson was used during UConn’s national championship run — lots of cutting to the dunker spot and free throw line to create both scoring and playmaking opportunities for him. The key will be finding ways to get him involved in the offense and not allowing teams to completely ignore him and make life more difficult on the likes of Domask, Hawkins and Guerrier.

That’s going to be one of the biggest focuses as Illinois gears up to take on a surging Michigan State team on Thursday.

One thing’s for sure after the Illini’s trip to Purdue though: this is going to be a fun year.