EAST LANSING, Mich. — The emphasis to get the ball to Kofi Cockburn was clear at the start of Tuesday’s game against Michigan State.
The Illinois center has been dominant in Big Ten play this season. He just had a 22-point performance in 24 minutes at Minnesota. The more post touches, the merrier.
Except Michigan State had the answer. Namely a rotating cast of bigs it could throw at the Illini sophomore with plenty of fouls to give.
And foul they did. Cockburn went to the line for 11 free throws. That he made just three was a setback — and not just his own — in No. 5 Illinois’ 81-72 loss to the Spartans.
“What does he have, 25, if he makes free throws?” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. Cockburn finished with 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting to go with six rebounds.
“They’ve got five guys they can just throw in there and go at him,” Underwood continued. “We were trying to throw it in there. Maybe a little bit too much because we got out of rhythm early, but they have a luxury with all that size.”
That a team would pressure Cockburn in the post wasn’t exactly new. Illinois had seen it before. Michigan State just had the means to do it more frequently.
“Teams are going to bring three people at him and make it tough on him every night,” Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier said. “They put a lot of pressure on Kofi (Tuesday night) to finish over length.”
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Cockburn wasn’t the only Illini to struggle at the free-throw line, although the 7-foot center’s 3 of 11 mark was the team’s worst. Ayo Dosunmu shot an uncharacteristically poor 4 of 8 at the line, while Andre Curbelo missed a pair, too.
Illinois was just 19 of 34 (55.9 percent) from the free line for the game. An 11 of 24 mark (45.8 percent) in the second half didn’t exactly aid the comeback attempt.
“We’re an elite free-throw shooting team,” Frazier said. “(Tuesday) was an off night. Obviously, it’s frustrating. (Tuesday) just wasn’t our night. I think that’s the conclusion of the game. It just wasn’t our night. We’ve got to learn from this all around and get better.”
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Jacob Grandison’s time playing for Bill Carmody at Holy Cross was a selling point for Underwood when he recruited the transfer forward ahead of the 2019-20 season. The tenets of the Princeton offense that Carmody ran — namely passing and cutting — fit with what Underwood was looking for in the portal.
“My cutting definitely became a point of strength in my game that I’m very comfortable with,” Grandison said. “Just movements and patterns within the game. … The Princeton offense really helped me. Honestly, I think the Princeton offense is a very beautiful way to play basketball. A lot of critics say it’s like an old-fashioned way to play the game.”
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Illinois’ move away from Underwood’s spread offense — what Grandison called a “cousin” to the Princeton offense — to an offense dictated more by ball-screen actions hasn’t really changed what Grandison can provide. His passing and cutting are still valued.
And, at times, his knowledge of the Princeton offense as a whole.
“I still know the Princeton offense like the back of my hand,” Grandison said. “When we played Northwestern, I was helping (assistant coach Chin Coleman) with the scout because they ran a couple actions.”
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Illinois’ shift to a more ball screen-centric offense coincided with the addition of assistant coach Stephen Gentry. Underwood handed his former assistant (they were together at Stephen F. Austin) the reins to his offense.
The mid-year changes last season saw the Illini improve from the 83rd-most efficient offense in 2018-19 to 38th last season and now eighth this season. Illinois also can now pair its top-10 offense with a defense that ranks ninth nationally in adjusted efficiency.
A key to continued success on both ends has been a pandemic-oriented change in how Illinois prepares its scouting reports. Gentry handles all of the opponents’ defenses against the Illini offense, while Coleman has the inverse responsibility.
“I’ve like the way this has panned out,” Underwood said. “Our assistant coaches aren’t on the road recruiting, so they’re here all the time. It was a way to restructure and maximize all of our guys’ ability to be here every day in practice. I think we’ve become more efficient on both ends. Chin’s done an equally good job on the defensive side.”
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Illinois senior guard Da’Monte Williams is seeing the fruits of his labors the past four seasons pay off in a big way. The Peoria native, one of two seniors on the team who signed under former coach John Groce, bought in immediately to Underwood’s vision for the program. It just took some time for it to pay off.
“We both had the same goal in mind, and that was to get Illinois basketball back to what it used to be,” Williams said about his first conversation with Underwood, while acknowledging his first two seasons were tough. “You stick through the tough, and there will be some light at the end of the day.”
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The occasional moment of inconsistency from his team doesn’t bother Underwood. He views it as a challenge. Discusses them as a means for his team to get better. Even a top-five team in the country has its stumbles and pitfalls along the way, like it did Tuesday night.
“I’m always trying to play the perfect game,” Underwood said. “Well, gosh darn, so is the other team, and they’re good. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Nebraska or playing Penn State…. I’m striving for the perfect game, and I get frustrated when Ayo kicks one off his foot or throws a bad pass. Combine that with a couple missed free throws, and that’s what drives me to continue to want to push these guys to get better.”
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Having an older team helps fight those inconsistencies. Makes it easier to shore up mistakes. And playing a season in a pandemic has only further emphasized the benefits of experience.
One-and-done hotbeds like Duke and Kentucky have struggled this season. Something of an anomaly compared to those programs’ recent successes, but struggles in 2020-21 nonetheless.
At the other end of the spectrum, the entirety of the top five in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 boasts a veteran core. Freshmen have played a role for all five teams, but the programs are built around their more experienced players.
“You look at the national champions,” Underwood said. “You look at North Carolina the year they won. You look at Jay Wright’s teams at Villanova. They’re all old. There’s tremendous advantage to being old and having experience and having a 20, 21, 22-year-old, who’s been in a weight program for three years, go against an 18-year-old who hasn’t.
“You get exceptional talents. You get the (Zion Williamsons) and certain one-and-dones. I think being older helps. I think having guys who have been in a system helps.”