Tate | For Illini to challenge Big Ten's best, they need more help

Tate | For Illini to challenge Big Ten's best, they need more help

With the pressuring, over-guarding defensive system Brad Underwood has installed, forced turnovers are critical to Illini basketball success.

We saw it work successfully Feb. 5 when Big Ten co-champion Michigan State unraveled with 24 miscues in a 79-74 loss here at State Farm Center. At one point late this season, opponents had committed roughly 100 more turnovers than Illinois, and were failing to get off a shot in nearly one-fourth of their possessions.

The tradeoff: Forced turnovers are offset by the fact that Illinois left lanes for too many easy baskets.

The danger in this pressuring approach is that, with the surprise element fading, careful foes may ultimately take advantage. And in the disappointing last five games, rivals averaged fewer than 10 turnovers. The actual five-game numbers: Illinois lost 65 possessions, rivals 47. The UI's strength became its downfall.

Worth the risk?

Which raises the dreaded two-part question as to whether Underwood's system will work in the long term.

(1) Mass subbing: Underwood sees the necessity of keeping regulars rested for the strenuous defensive workload, but is a nine-man rotation beneficial when the subs — if Andres Feliz deserves a "starter" designation, then Da'Monte Williams is a "sub" — are so offensively challenged? Is Underwood too lenient with his bench?

(2) Rim protection: How can a team so weak in rebounding and shot blocking hold up against all those penetrating sorties caused by what amounts to gambling perimeter coverage?

Truth is, a late-season zone was by far the most effective UI defense. It worked for a solid half last Sunday at Penn State, setting up a 34-31 Illini lead before the roof caved in. And a switch to 3-2 zone with Illinois trailing Northwestern 48-43 on Wednesday night limited the Wildcats to two Dererk Pardon baskets from the 12-minute mark to 3:10, allowing the Illini to force overtime and ultimately win, 74-69, as the Wildcats missed their last six shots.

This isn't meant to promote a zone, but it's not a bad thing to mix it in.

Boosting the brand

OK, on to next year (a less stressful schedule) and the need for talent acquisition by a program that Chicago-to-St. Louis prospects seemingly consider a diminishing brand. The commitment of Oak Hill (Va.) center Kofi Cockburn, which appears solid, is just the beginning of what is required up front.

It's pretty clear that Underwood's system is vulnerable with the talent on hand. This was never more obvious than in the two Iowa games with the overmatched Illini falling 95-71 on Jan. 20 and 83-62 on Thursday night. Iowa shot freely inside and outside in both games. From the Hawkeye view, these were laughers by a team that had lost four straight prior to Thursday.

Fair evaluations by the media and coaches presented a 12-21 club (first Illini team to lose 20) with no one among the league's 15 selected all-stars.

The UI's new pride-and-joy, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, didn't even make the league's five-man all-freshman team. And the three guards, deemed a team strength, excelled as solo acts and did not always display meshing playmaking skills to make each other better. Feliz flashed takeover tendencies down the stretch, but virtually disappeared (two points) Thursday against Iowa. Trent Frazier took just two shots at Penn State, scored 21 in the overtime defeat of NU and was marginally effective (11 points) against Iowa.

Shooting star

Now we turn to Ayo Dosunmu. As a freshman with flamboyant open-court skills, he displays NBA promise and may be a year away from first-round consideration. He has shown himself to be less effective in the half-court setup than on breakaways.

He'll be wise to test the market this summer with the realization that, if he could somehow be assured of the last slot in the 30-round draft, it would be worth more than $9 million over the next four years (two years guaranteed at plus-$3.5M). With the NBA his goal in life, he could not be expected to turn that down.

The Dosunmu decision is just one of many, both within the squad and in scouring the prep, junior college and transfer markets. Without help, Illinois is a long way from challenging Big Ten leaders Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan ... and a long way from showing whether Underwood's unique system will work here.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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