Heat Checks and Hail Marys - the Illini are Back in the New York Groove - Huge Win Over #11 FAU

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

December 6, 2023

Marcus Domask courtesy Illinois Athletics

It was a resounding victory over the #11 FAU Owls in the legendary Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night for the #20 Fighting Illini.

The Fighting Illini and the Owls went toe-to-toe in the first half. In the second half, the Illini landed power punch after power punch to defeat the Owls 98-89 with a massive 59 point second half scoring deluge. Marcus Domask and Terrence Shannon, Jr both scored 33 points leading the Illini to the victory.

As far as Illini fans are concerned, the Madison Square Garden should be renamed the Bradison Square Garden.

Heat Check #1 – Illini Huge Win over FAU at MSG - Opportunity for Improvement

It was an impressive night for the Illini in the Big Apple. Let’s look at some stat comparisons to the FAU Owls for Tuesday night's battle.

The Illini:

  • shot 63% from the field, compared to 48% for FAU
  • shot 40% from the 3-point line, compared to 39% for FAU
  • shot 90% from the FT line compared to 82% for FAU
  • were outrebounded 28-26 by the high energy Owls.
  • held the Owls to no fast break points, compared to scoring 9 off the break themselves

The Illini picked an excellent game to shoot well from the field and from the free throw line. Many of the stats listed above were surprising to say the least. But there was one stat that I found the craziest and I think the Illini coaching staff should try to diagnose what the issue is holding the Illini back.

The Illini outscored FAU in the paint 48 to 36 and the Illini only shot 20 three-point shots. There was no issue of the Illini settling for threes. At the same time, FAU shot 2 more free throws than did the Illini (22 to 20 for the game). That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you take out the 10 free throws that Coleman Hawkins (2 for 2) and Terrence Shannon took (7 of 8) in the game's last two minutes the free throw numbers change drastically. Despite doing their best work in the paint, the Illini were outshot at the FT line 22 – 8 even with FAU scoring a dozen less points in the lane.

What can the Illini do differently to draw more fouls and/or have less fouls called on them?

Watching the game, it appeared as if the Illini were victims of a quicker whistle on the defensive end of the floor, but I am not an unbiased viewer (as if anyone thought I was). Could it be that the officials wanted to keep the game close? That's an easy answer, but a review of the film is in order. Diving into some sort of analysis would be worth the time of the Illini basketball coaching staff.

The film should be reviewed closely to see if there is anything the Illini could do differently. Is there is anything the Illini could pick up from FAU to help their own cause and get the Illini to the line for more free throws? Is there anything the Illini can change/adapt while playing post defense to get better results? It's easy to blame the refs for behavior similar to what we see from AAU refs, who will adjust their calls to keep a game close. Making that assumption is essentially pressing the "easy" button.

Doing the film research to see if there are any coaching tips (even if it's a microscopic nuance) is worth the time. The greater than 2 to 1 free throw advantage for FAU - especially with less points in the paint scored, and with fewer shots taken in the lane makes the film review necessary to determine if there is a "solution" to the Illini foul problem to found. Trying to find ways to reduce the number of fouls called on Illini defenders and thus the number of free throws shot by opponents in any one game could be critically important. It might result in less free throws shot by opponents, or less fouls on Illini players. And what if the Illini could increase the number of fouls called on defenders when they attack the basket?

In close games, small technique changes might mean another B1G win or two. More importantly in the NCAA tourney, a small change in behavior might translate to the difference of going to a Sweet Sixteen versus going home after the first weekend of the tourney.

Hail Mary #1 – What Does Not Meeting Expectations Really Looks Like

It doesn’t take much to look back at the preseason college football rankings to see that the USC Trojans were expected to reclaim their position as one of the elites of college football. Both the AP and Coaches poll had the Trojans ranked at #6 in the last year of the Pac12 prior to their entering the Big Ten next fall.

With the regular season concluded, the Trojans sit at 7-5 after losing 5 of their last 6 games. They were nowhere near qualifying for the Pac12 conference championship game. As hard as it is to believe, for frustrated USC fans who expected to be competing for a College Football Playoff berth when cutting into their turkey on Thanksgiving, this season could have been even worse.

If it wasn’t for the results of two different two-point conversion plays, the Trojans would be on a 7-game losing streak. In their Arizona victory that made the Trojans 6-0, then Heisman hopeful Caleb Williams ran for a two-point conversion that won the game 43-41 for USC.

After two losses in a row to Notre Dame and Utah, USC battled 3-4 Cal to the final minute of the game. With a 50-43 lead, the Trojans surrendered a touchdown and only a failed two-point conversion by California saved the 50-49 lead. The Trojans escaped with a victory.

USC could easily be 5-7 and not be bowling – all in a year that a CFP berth was nearly assumed as their "right" based on the return of Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. Instead, USC fans expecting their team to land a playoff berth are now looking forward to playing in the DIRECTV Holiday Bowl against Louisville on December 27th.

The only hope USC fans have now is that defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has been fired and that his replacement, D'Anton Lynn (of archrival UCLA) will be both good enough to change the USC defensive results and be granted the latitude by head coach Lincoln Riley to do whatever is necessary to change the defensive results.

As usual, only time will tell. But fan expectations were woefully underachieved by USC. They wanted a 13-win team headed into the playoff, and all they got was a seven-win team - and without 2 plays - it could've been so much worse.

 

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