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Illinois’ defense needs to get back to forcing tough twos

Since the loss to Purdue, the defensive execution hasn’t been the same.

Nebraska v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Illini victory over Rutgers on Jan. 21 encapsulated just about everything Brad Underwood could hope for defensively. The Illini forced 55 two-point attempts, which is the most they’ve forced an opponent to take in conference play this season.

However, only three of the last eight games have been better than average when looking at two-point percentage defense.

The Illini are giving up 59.3% of their points as two-point field goals. This ranks fifth in the nation according to KenPom.

Now it’s just a matter of forcing opponents to convert less of those opportunities.

Just before the Michigan State game on Jan. 11, the Illini ranked second in the country in two-point field goal percentage defense.

Over the last eight games, they rank 186th in that same category.

As already mentioned, the game against Rutgers was one of the few bright spots defensively over the last month.

Let’s take a look at how they gave Rutgers trouble when trying to initiate offense.

Pay attention to how the Illini perimeter defenders attack guards/wings. Individual defenders don’t give much breathing room when isolated and they fight hard over screens (or switch depending on the matchup), all in an effort to limit three-point attempts. Help-side defenders will provide enough help to discourage shots at the rim, forcing a high volume of mid-range jumpers.

During the possession below, Marcus Domask does a great job of staying in front of Aundre Hyatt of Rutgers, and Coleman Hawkins shows just enough in the lane to force a pull up jumper.

The possession below is an all-out effort from everyone on the floor.

There’s an early dribble hand off where Harmon and Terrence Shannon communicate to switch the screen, giving no space for a three-point attempt. Coleman Hawkins’ man then sets two ball screens in a row. Each time Hawkins does not switch, instead playing help side for just long enough to let his teammates fight over the screen. Terrence Shannon reacts quickly to deter a drive. The second time Domask is a little slower to get over his screen, which leads to a contested long two-point attempt.

Coach Underwood had to appreciate this execution.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On the other end of the floor, Marcus Domask does most of his work in the mid-range.

It’s been quite the juxtaposition so far this season, and the Illini are lucky that Domask resides in Champaign. Take a look at his field goal percentage shot chart by zone via CBB Analytics:

CBB Analytics

Domask shoots 48.9% on mid-range jumpers outside of the paint. That’s good for the top 21% of all players in Division I. He’s an above-average shooter in the paint as well.

When he finds himself defended by smaller guards, he tends to start backing them down from near the three-point line.

Here he takes advantage of his size advantage over Braden Smith, but doesn’t get close enough to the paint to let Zach Edey alter his shot.

When he gets deeper into the post, he’s been very crafty at using his footwork to his advantage. In the play below against Michigan, he does a great job of keeping his pivot foot until he sees the space he needs to get a good look at the basket.

He’s also a good sport, and willing to admit when he gets away with an uncalled traveling violation...

Marcus Domask has been steady lately and provides a unique scoring threat to what’s turning into a dynamic offense.

Let’s hope the defense can find the same success they had earlier in the year. Nine games remain in the regular season and the Illini have a legitimate shot to at least share in the Big Ten regular season title.