Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Illini Win Provides Rays of Hope

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy

November 24, 2021

Last night's victory over the Kansas State Wildcats provided tangible proof that the team has the ability to take coaching and apply it to their play in almost real time circumstances. This seems like something that should be automatic, but some teams are notorious for taking a lot of time and practice reps to get changes implemented when it comes to game time performance. The Illini have had challenges due to injuries getting the full team out on the practice floor - and it shows. Last night proved that changes can be made - especially when players are focused and looking to get a different outcome (a win) rather than the loss taken in the prior two games.

Heat Check #1 - Defense Matters

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Yahoo.com

Shots don't always fall. Some rims are tighter than others. Some gyms have their own unique dynamics that make them harder to shoot in. Some days a player just doesn't get the lucky roll or the good bounce when it comes to shots going in the hoop. None of these factors make a difference on the defensive end of the court. Effort and determination are in the total control of the player. Coach Underwood rewards that behavior with playing time. He has preached the importance of toughness and defense from day one of his tenure at Illinois. Last night, it was clear the players "rediscovered" that principle.

After a solid first half of defense, the Illini elevated the pressure for the second half. The results were impressive. The Wildcats shot a dismal 33.3% from the field in the second half and only 23.08% from the three-point line. That type of shooting coupled with the Illini's 16 rebound advantage (for the entire game) resulted in an Illini victory that wasn't as close as the score looked.

This win came despite the Illini being careless with the basketball. The Illini committed 18 turnovers compared to the Wildcats only giving up a respectable 4 turnovers. When you add in the paltry 50% shooting from the free throw line (the Illini shot only 10-20 from the charity stripe), it would be easy to see the Illini losing this game without their effort on the defensive end. This game could've been a blowout in the Illini's favor with the same discipline being applied to turnovers and free throws.

If the Illini bring this type of defensive effort each night, they will have a chance to win almost every game they play the rest of the season. They won't be able to withstand a shooting night like they had against Cincinnati, but if they bring the big-time intensity mirroring the second half against Kansas State, they can "even the odds" by significantly lowering the effectiveness and efficiency of their opponent's offense.

Heat Check #2 - Kofi's Offseason Workouts are Showing

Kofi Cockburn courtesy USA Today.

Kofi did a few things that he's been working on in the offseason. He had two assists that came out of a double team situation. In case you think 2 assists is an insignificant number, it probably is - until you compare that to the 5 assists he had - all last year.  The two assists could be the start of something. Let's see how often Kofi can make this happen. If he can reliably hit the open man for uncontested three-point attempts, the Illini will be much, much harder to defend.

Kofi hit 7 for 13 from the free throw line. No one is saying that is a fantastic percentage, but his form looks much improved and he appears to be more confident from the line. Against Cincinnati, despite the horrid night for the team overall, Kofi shot a perfect 4 for 4 from the free throw line. It takes time to build confidence. If Kofi is able to shoot 66.7% from the free throw line to go with his usual 65% shooting from the field, he will be quite the efficient scorer for the Illini. Any free throw shooting improvements above and beyond that would be gravy for the Illini. Maybe Kofi can make every night Thanksgiving with continued practice on this skill.

Kofi also revealed a mid-range game, hitting a couple of mid-range jumpers. Again, his form looked good. Defenders having to worry about a Kofi Cockburn who can pull up and hit a jumper have even more to worry about - even more than trying to take a charge against a human freight train as he barrels towards the basket. If they have to consider the fact that if a defender double teams Kofi, he will pass the ball out to his undefended teammate, things get much more difficult for the defense.

Finally, if Kofi hits free throws at roughly a two makes for three attempts ratio, he becomes the nuclear reactor for an Illini offense that will be much harder to cool down the way the Bearcats did on Monday night. There's a lot of incentive for Kofi to keep focusing on honing his skills.

Heat Check #3 - Curbelo Playing within Himself

Andre Curbelo has been trying to become the next Ayo by taking over a game with his scoring. We're not doubting that his heart is in the right place. If I were to give Curbelo any advice, it would be this: Don't be the best Ayo impression that you can be, be the best Andre Curbelo you can be.

What do I mean by this? Ayo won games with his ability to score - particularly down the stretch of games as the pressure ratcheted up. It was great to have a scorer like Ayo. His ability to create his own shot, or to take advantage of the decision to leave him in order to double team Kofi or help when Curbelo beat his man allowed Ayo to score. This stopped teams from going on long runs against the Illini. There weren't very many stretches where opponents outscored the Illini 15-1 (or some other similar type of streaks). Ayo could score well enough to stop that momentum from building. Curbelo doesn't have that skill set. Before someone gets upset, remember Curbelo has his own special set of skills that apply here. He just needs to use them.

Curbelo's ability is to break down his defender, once past his defender, Curbelo forces another defender to come off of their own man to stop Curbelo from driving to the hoop. It is in that moment that Curbelo's skill can provide results similar to Ayo - but in a different fashion.  If a defender comes over to help after Curbelo beats his own man, Andre needs to find the open player. The defense rotates towards the ball to cover for the man that Andre beat initially. Someone must be open. It's Andre's job to identify who is the open man and then get them the ball with a pass that hits them in a fashion that they can shoot the open shot. There are times that Curbelo can get to the basket by himself. If so, by all means make that happen. If not, slay the defense with assists to open Illini teammates.

If Curbelo beats his man, diagnoses who the open man is and he gets the ball to him in the shooting pocket - the open shots will come and opposing scoring streaks will be cut short. Ayo was a magnificent player for the Illini, but he's now becoming a contributor for the Chicago Bulls. His time in the Orange and Blue has come and gone. We need the one and only Andre Curbelo, not the next Ayo Dosunmu to make this Illini team roll. Let's get Andre playing well, it's his time, now.

And before you think I missed it; Plummer seems to be quite a shooter. Let's watch Curbelo's assists shoot up even higher as he gets Alfonso the ball so he can put his marksmanship on display.

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