The next stop on the Fighting Illini’s revenge rampage is in Ann Arbor this Sunday. Illinois has knocked off five straight opponents, including a streak of beating three straight teams they’ve lost to this season (Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern) and are coming off a victory over Penn State, who happened to beat the Illini the last time they played last season. So pretty much, if you’ve beat the Illini before, watch out.
“Once you’ve actually played these teams or once you get familiar with the tendencies of the players, you try to look to take away those types of tendencies,” said Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin.
In their last matchup on January 27th, the Michigan Wolverines left Champaign with a 74-60 victory and secured a No. 1 ranking. Now losers of three of their last five, Michigan is reeling. And Illinois is hot.
This Illinois squad hardly resembles the team in January. In fact, the Fighting Illini are in the midst of one of their biggest turnarounds in school history. In the modern era, only the 1988 Fighting Illini improved their record more in the second half of the Big Ten season. And it all starts on the defensive end.
The Illini have held opponents to 56.8 points per game on 39% from the field in their five-game winning streak compared to allowing 76 points per game on 51.3% shooting in their previous three game losing streak (Michigan, at Michigan State, Wisconsin). They’ve also cut down on fouls (22.3 to 17.8) and opponent’s free throw attempts (29.7 to 14.8) in this hot streak. Why this sudden improvement in defense? They simply faced the facts.
“The numbers don’t lie and coach brought those numbers up to us,” McLaurin said. “We look at how many points per possession we have compared to the points per possession they have and when teams are scoring over a point per possession that’s not good, that’s saying we’re not doing what were supposed to be doing defensively.”
Against Northwestern, the Illini went on a 26-0 run during a Northwestern scoring drought that lasted 11 minutes, 53 seconds with no field goals made and 9 minutes, 29 seconds with no points scored. Penn State suffered similar droughts against the new and improved Illini defense.
“We knew that we weren’t gonna get better unless we started attacking more on defense,” senior Brandon Paul said. “Having more intensity on defense creates more offense for us.”
Defense creates offense. It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s tried and true. Illinois has outscored its opponents in points off turnovers in 22 of their 28 games this season, including scoring 28 points off 14 turnovers and 24 points off 17 turnovers in wins over Indiana and Purdue respectively.
While the Illini forced 12 turnovers the last time they faced Michigan, they gave the Wolverines too many good looks. Even with their player of the year candidate point guard Trey Burke only shooting 7-19 for 19 points, Michigan shot 52.5% from the field and seemed to score inside buckets at will.
“They hurt us with screening action in game one,” Groce said. “We gotta do a better job of defending those than we did in game one. And it’s easier said than done because they put you in a pickle because their personnel is so good and [Michigan coach John Beilein] does such a great job of putting them in position, their spacing is excellent, so you kind of gotta pick your poison a little bit and hope that you could limit them some.”
Michigan utilizes pin downs, which are screens set by big men close to the basket, usually towards the baseline. The goal of the screen is to “pin down” the opponent in the paint to open up Burke on the wing to either catch and shoot, find a teammate, or penetrate off fakes. If the Illinois guards struggle to get around these screens or their big men are slow to rotate, Mr. Burke will drain easy jumpers all day. With Burke drawing so much attention in their last contest, Illinois was able to contain him off screens, but not without allowing big men Mitch McGary and Jon Horford to slide in for easy lay-ups. Hence, pick your poison. Disrupting Michigan’s pin down action will be a point of emphasis for the Illini.
One of the major benefactors of the Illini’s recent defensive serge has been D.J. Richardson, who is putting up career numbers in their winning streak. Richardson has scored double digits in a career best nine straight games and is averaging 17.3 points per game in that stretch. He’s also surpassed Paul as the Illini’s leading scorer in conference play at 14.9 ppg.
“It’s something I could’ve been doing a long time ago,” Richardson said. “Shots are just falling. I’ve been helping the team on the defensive end, I’ve been rebounding, I’ve been leading more so that’s something that’s really changed. People don’t really see how much I’ve been leading on the court besides just putting up points.”
The Illini are more than happy to welcome a new defensive culture. Their feast or famine three-point onslaught could only get them so far. In their five-game winning streak, Illinois has only made 6.6 three pointers per game on 28.2% shooting. Ideally, the Illini would like to find more consistency from deep, but it’s a reassuring sign they no longer rely on that shot.
Illinois heads to Ann Arbor with a new confidence and a new culture. With revenge in mind, the Fighting Illini continue to turn doubters into believers.
“We’re not trying to get swept by teams,” Richardson said. “They’re a good team. We’ve gotta play with a chip on our shoulder like we did in the beginning of the year, we’ve got a lot more to prove.”