March Madness: Illinois' guide to the B1G Tournament
Illinois didn’t get “shafted” this year.
Before the final week of the season, Brad Underwood indicated he was still frustrated that Illinois wasn’t named a co-regular season champion from the 2020-21 campaign. On Sunday, the Illini left no doubt.
Thanks to Wisconsin’s loss to Nebraska, Illinois was able to secure a win over Iowa and shared the regular season conference title with the Badgers. The Illini closed out the regular season with an 15-5 conference record and a 22-8 mark overall.
Now, the regular season B1G champions head to Indianapolis for a chance to defend their crown, winning last year’s conference tournament. Here are 5 things Illinois needs to do to secure back-to-back titles in the B1G Tournament:
Keep Kofi out of foul trouble
This will be priority No. 1 for Illinois throughout the course of the tournament. That’s not to say Illinois can’t win a game if Cockburn isn’t on the floor, but keeping one of the B1G Player of the Year candidates in the game is a significant advantage for the Fighting Illini.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Cockburn’s presence in the post is an advantage itself. Plus, he’s averaging 21 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this year. He’s capable of drawing fouls offensively and altering shots on the defensive side of the floor. Not many in the B1G can compete with the Illinois center.
When Cockburn is on the bench, Illinois’ inside-out advantage disappears. The Illini have to become a little more creative on offense without some of those easy looks in the paint.
It should go without saying that keeping one of the league’s best players on the court is a pretty big key to success in Indianapolis this week.
Share the wealth
Depth was a big reason why Illinois was able to stake claim to a B1G regular season title. It’s also a significant advantage come March, when the Illini will have to play 3 games in 3 days if they want to defend their conference tournament title.
Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison and Andre Curbelo are all capable of taking over games. Frazier and Curbelo can score but have also done an outstanding job at creating shots for their teammates as the two top assist guys on the squad. Plummer and Grandison are both converting on better than 40% of their shots from behind the 3-point line.
Combine that with the most dominant big man in the league in Cockburn, and you’ve created a pretty solid recipe for success in March.
Underwood hasn’t been afraid to give guys the green light throughout the season and Illinois has been very unselfish offensively. Having multiple guys capable of carrying a team is a lethal weapon at this point in the year.
Get to the free throw line
The Achilles’ heel for Illinois in their B1G losses this season has come at the free throw line. In 4 of Illinois’ 5 conference losses during the regular season, its opponents have gotten to the foul line more frequently and connected on more opportunities.
In those 4 games, opponents made an average of 12.5 more trips to the free throw line and outscored the Illini by an average of 10.8 points. That’s a pretty significant difference.
Getting to the free throw line — and making those shots — is going to be important. The Illini are shooting 71% from the charity stripe, which ranks 190th nationally for the year. That mark probably needs to be a touch higher at Gainbridge Fieldhouse this week.
Be more aggressive defensively
Illinois has one of the best defensive players in the country in Frazier, who has the ability to shut down a lot of premier players in the league. Plus, Cockburn’s presence on the inside is a nightmare matchup for a lot of B1G teams.
The Illini are limiting teams to 41.4% shooting from the floor and 32.3% from 3-point range. Considering how explosive this team can be offensively, that’s good enough to win a lot of games (in case you didn’t take that away from the regular season). So, it’s not like Illinois needs to completely revamp its defensive effort. It’s been solid all season long.
One area of concern is in forced turnovers, though. Illinois hasn’t done a good job of putting opponents in tough decision-making situations or getting more pressure on the basketball. The Illini have only forced an average of 10.8 turnovers per game, ranking 311th in the country.
If Illinois can create more fastbreak opportunities by forcing some turnovers, this team will be almost impossible to beat.
Sometimes, the jitters of the one-and-done mindset can lead to some bad shot selection. Illinois has scorers all over the floor and, at times, has shown the ability to have some of the best ball movement in the B1G.
Keep it rolling.
If teams double-team Cockburn in the post, a 3-pointer shooter is going to be open. If it’s a man-to-man situation, the 7-footer is going to be able to put up some big numbers. It’s a matchup nightmare for every team in the B1G.
There’s no need to rush shots or settle for contested jumpers. Move the ball, get good looks and work from the inside-out.