See Mo Wagner (#13)’s face in this photo? That’s my face watching the Illini play on the road.
What happened to “Toughness and Togetherness”?
I’m not a big fan of yearly team mottos. I think they’re a little corny, especially when they’re so intentionally alliterative and then become acronyms (T-n-T) that are then suggestive of another acronym. But these things seem to work. For example, look at the identity P.J. Fleck has been able to create at Western Michigan around the “row the boat” phrase. Granted, Fleck’s motto is more complex and deeply personal than your standard whiteboard fodder. It illustrates the power of words, when coupled with belief and determination, to shape the identity of a program. But Fleck’s coaching and the results kids see on the field has a lot to do with forming that culture, too. What if Fleck kept preaching “row the boat” but headed a program that was going nowhere as players pulled in competing directions?
Point is, if you don’t back them up with action, words are just words. And if your actions consistently don’t match your words, you look foolish.
I thought the “toughness and togetherness” thing had faded a bit as Illinois’ slogan, but Maverick Morgan referenced it again after the home win over Michigan in words that provided the Wolverines with bulletin board fodder heading into yesterday’s game. Morgan said, “[Michigan is] more of a white collar team traditionally and at Illinois we’re about toughness and togetherness.” Michigan took offense to the suggestion that they were white collar, or soft. Perhaps more on the blue collar metaphor in sports in another post. Today we’re talking about good old T-n-T.
So, what happened Saturday in Ann Arbor? The Illini were out-toughed and out-togethernessed (possible first ever use of that term) in a sloppy game that featured multiple scoring droughts by both teams and 31 combined turnovers.
The game went back and forth for the first five minutes as both teams attacked the paint. Staying close in the opening minutes on the road was a new look for Illinois, but after leading Michigan 10-9, the Illini went on a four-minute scoring drought. Michigan used three Illinois turnovers to fuel an 8-0 run and take a 17-10 lead. A Mike Thorne, Jr. and-1 brought the Illini within 4, but Michigan pushed the lead up to 10 at the break, 34-24, when Jaylon Tate’s last-second three clanged out. Why does it often feel like Tate is the guy taking shots as the clock winds down? This seems less than ideal.
The second half saw Michigan pull away for good. After Jalen Coleman-Lands made a jumper on Illinois’ first possession out of the break, the Illini went cold again for over four minutes, turning the ball over four times and watching Michigan’s lead balloon to 19. After getting within 15, the Illini offense stagnated again, this time for 5 minutes. Mercifully, Michigan wasn’t setting the world on fire, either, and only led by 21 when Malcolm Hill converted a 3-point play to end the drought. Illinois achieved a respectable final score by tallying 11 points in the final 1:45, eight of those by Te’Jon Lucas.
If you just looked at the final statistics, you’d think this was a close game throughout. It wasn’t. In the end, Illinois shot 45.8% to Michigan’s 45.1%. Michigan outrebounded the Illini by 3, and the Illini showed 9 assists to Michigan’s 8. Turnovers were a problem for both teams, with the Illini coughing up 17 and Michigan 14. Michigan shot 8 more free throws, but only cashed in 14 to Illinois’ 11. The final margin was achieved by the Wolverines making 4 more three-pointers, 3 more free throws, and one more two-pointer. Such are the little things that turn a basketball game. And, perhaps, a program.
It takes toughness and togetherness to win on the road. In a hostile environment, on unfamiliar rims, in a different locker room and on an altered schedule, there’s a reason why road teams lose a majority of the time. This year, the Illini are 3-6 away from the State Farm Center, and all of the losses have been in rather spectacular fashion. Only this latest setback was by single digits and that achieved by a Kipper Nichols basket with 4 seconds left.
The Illini just didn’t play tough enough in this game. They were out-rebounded 10-6 on the offensive glass, and a couple of those Michigan offensive rebounds were emphatic dunks through two or three Illini who failed to box out. I think, though, that togetherness is a bigger problem for this squad than toughness. You can tell these guys want to play well, that it matters to them, and they seem to like each other. There’s just an inability to play as a cohesive unit. This is illustrated most glaringly by their inability to play solid team defense. On Michigan’s first offensive play, Hill and Morgan miscommunicated on help defense along the baseline, allowing an easy basket. These guys have been playing together for four years. A later defensive miscommunication left Mo Wagner, Wolverine big man who shoots over 40% from 3, open for a triple. The second half saw more defensive confusion lead to open shots. This is a veteran team in a coach’s 5th year. They should know the system and each other better by now.
On offense, there is little flow or sense of purpose. Is this a result of the players not fitting the system? The system not fitting the players? The players not running the system? No system? It takes Illinois a long time to begin running their sets: often things don’t get going until there are between 15 and 20 seconds on the shot clock. Then there’s usually a screen at the top of the key for the ball handler, who dribbles to one side or the other and either passes further to the wing or into the extended post. The Illini rarely seem to pass the ball into areas that force a defense to react or make a mistake. The ball often skips around the perimeter (can you skip slowly? The ball isn’t usually moving very fast) or goes in to a post player who then either passes back out or backs his man down one-on-one while the rest of the team watches. There’s a lot of one-on-one in this offense, and not all of the players have the ability to break their defender down in this situation. Malcolm Hill can, but if this is the system, he can’t be the only one capable of running it.
The Illini struggle to space the floor effectively. They don’t react quickly and instinctively when a team mate forces the defense to collapse. When offensive players don’t move with purpose, the offense bogs down and defenders can help on the ball handler without concern that a three-point shooter will relocate or a wing will make a devastating back cut. Seeing the floor can be instinctive; Te’Jon Lucas shows this innate ability. But it can also be taught.
Twenty games into this season, Illinois hasn’t developed a team identity. They talk about toughness and togetherness, but it hasn’t quite manifested consistently on the court. Especially on the road, where it’s needed the most. This is an Illini team made up of good guys who care and play hard, but they lack leadership. Someone needs to steer this boat.
Photo: Tony Ding, AP, via The Pantagraph. http://www.pantagraph.com/sports/college/basketball/men/fired-up-michigan-leaves-illini-feeling-blue/article_d1fa26f0-bd4d-585b-861d-23e39a2cef43.html