3:30 January 28, 2017
Radio: 97.5 FM WHMS 1400 AM WDWS
Questions Worth Asking
- Will the offense continue to flourish with Te’Jon Lucas at the controls? Lucas has played himself into a starting role on a team with two senior point guards. Not an easy task. As a freshman, he’s shown impressive court vision, a knack for getting in the lane, and a willingness to try to make the tough pass. That takes some courage when you’re still trying to earn the trust of your coaches and team mates. He’s also made major strides defensively, and his ability to stay in front of his man was a welcome sight in the Iowa game. Of course, he’s also had a couple of hiccups on rotations, and he’s still adjusting to life in the Big Ten, where a scoop layup is more likely to find the seats than the bottom of the net. Even with the freshman blips, the Illini are more dynamic when Lucas is on the court, and his ability to find his guys for open shots improves off-ball movement. When you know there’s a good chance you’ll get an open look, you want to be in position and ready. Lucas faces a big test tomorrow in his first start on the road against a Penn State team that ranks fourth in the conference in turnover margin.
- Can Illinois avoid another sluggish start on the road? Loren Tate has the numbers on the Illini’s recent road deficits. They’re not pretty. Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan both referenced the need to get off to a good start in their pregame comments. There’s more to the quick start than just points; it’s also psychological. With the tantalizing hope of a mid-season renaissance occasioned by the effect Lucas has on the offense and the recent defensive improvements, the last thing you want to do is get that “here we go again” feeling. The first 5-10 minutes will be crucial in Happy Valley.
- Will John Groce continue to follow a set and liberal substitution pattern? The Illini coach was roundly criticized (including here) for disrupting the Illini’s opening run against Iowa by pulling Lucas, Jalen Coleman-Lands, and Leron Black in favor of Tracy Abrams, Jaylon Tate, and Michael Finke. Scripting can be helpful when a game is going according to plan or even stagnating, but flow is important. In games like basketball and soccer, where players get hot and need to be able to read each other and anticipate each other’s movements, continuity is key. Coaches need to read that and ride the wave of momentum. Illinois has had trouble finding togetherness and flow on the court this season, and substitution patterns could be part of that. It’s also crucial that there always be a playmaker on the floor. For the most part, that means Lucas or Malcolm Hill. With enough shooters, Tate and Abrams can be effective, but a lineup featuring Tate, Abrams, Finke, Kipper Nichols, and Mike Thorne, Jr., as we saw against Iowa, is not going to be your best look. Groce likes to emphasis strength in numbers, and the Illini played 10 guys at least 10 minutes each against the Hawkeyes, but because Illinois doesn’t press or push the tempo tremendously – and therefore shouldn’t be quickly exhausted – that needs to be a feel thing rather than a set thing.
Groce talked about Penn State being at top 35 defense according to the Ken Pom ratings, but their statistical numbers on their own aren’t that impressive. The Nittany Lions (what the heck is a Nittany Lion?) are in the bottom third of the conference in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense. On the other hand, they are in the top third of the conference in blocks, steals, and turnover margin. That suggests an athleticism and quickness on the defensive end. Penn State hasn’t been an offensive powerhouse, so if the Illini can take care of the ball and play decent defense, I like their chances. I think Illinois wins a close one.