Texas Longhorns vs. Illinois Illini Preview

Personnel

First let’s start with the Illini personnel. March To March’s jc25 has a great breakdown of Bruce Weber’s squad here. Take some time to familiarize yourself with this group and then come on back.

As you can see this is an experienced squad. They return all five starters from last season, but more importantly, they have a core group of players that compliment one another’s skill-sets impressively.

McCamey is the floor general with John Wall-light stat-lines if not talent. He’s got shooters to extend the floor in backcourt mates Paul and Richardson, and the Illini have an experienced interior duo that moves well in tandem in Webber’s open post offense which forces not only your perimeter to play sound ball-you-man defense, but your bigs as well. More on the importance of Texas bigs playing sound positional defense in a moment.

Off the bench, Illinois has got experience in both the backcourt and frontcourt in Head and Cole to provide some steady minutes. They’ll also roll out some explosive talent on the wing with McDonald’s All-American Jereme Richmond who at 6’8” and with some perimeter skills is the Illini’s only true small forward.

Again, it’s a more experienced group than it is a talented one, but the pieces fit so well together that end product is certainly better than the sum of its parts.

Keys to the Game

Like most games this season, Texas is going to have to do a balancing act of offensive vs. defensive personnel in this ballgame. Our best defensive player tends to handicap our offense, and two of our most dynamic offensive players have trouble guarding on and off the ball.

The latter is an absolutely killer against Weber’s famous five man motion offense, which is a confluence of 5 man motion open post offense, some of flex cutting, wrapped in a bow of Bobby Knight’s motion offense concepts, which are a steady diet of down screens, reading your defender, and then cutting appropriately (curl, fade, or a cut to a jump shot.)

Defensively Weber is going to run traditional, straight forward, pressure man to man defense, but the good news for Longhorn fans is that there will be holes and opportunities for this Texas team to exploit. More on that in a minute.

Keys when the Longhorns are on defense…

Stop Demetri McCamey.

Cut off the head and the body dies right? Well, yeah sort of, but in this instance, it just means the body grows a pretty solid halfcourt offense. But first things first.

The Horns must stop McCamey from using his strength and deceptive quickness to get in the lane and collapse a young Longhorn defense. McCamey’s penetration is the Illini’s easy money on offense. He probably has the best vision in all of college hoops, and he’ll downright destroy a young, undersized Texas frontcourt if he’s allowed to breach the perimeter shell.

Since McCamey is a credible jumpshooter, the Horns can’t be too offensive minded with their personnel decisions and have Brown or Lucas try to steal minutes guarding McCamey by giving a huge cushion and playing off the senior to take away the dribble drive. He’s been to that movie and shot so well he got some free popcorn.

Make no mistake, this is Dogus Balbay’s ballgame even if we suffer on the offensive end in terms of efficiency and spacing. We have to stop McCamey otherwise the game becomes too easy for Weber’s group, elevating the average talent surrounding Demetri to world beater levels.

A wild card in defending McCamey may be to try Corey Joseph on the Illini lead guard which would help bolster Texas' offensive firepower . Joseph is just as quick and has the requisite size to keep from being bullied into the lane. It could expose the talented freshman to some foul trouble, but it also helps keep the floor spread on the other end. All told, Texas does have answers for slowing down the tip of the Illini spear.

Guarding the Illini Motion Attack.

This video isn’t the best illustration Weber's offense, but there are two instructive items that Coach Lavin mentions in the piece that work with my analysis:

First, I’d like to talk about the down screen which is the second play in the video. One of the core concepts of Weber’s offense, which employs a lot of Bobby Knight’s offensive philosophy, is reading defenders when coming off of screens. Notice how McCamey curls off of the Tisdale screen and finds unfettered access into the heart of the defense for an easy find and bucket. That can’t happen if you’re guarding with the scouting report in mind. Offensive players should not be treated equally so why the hell would you trail the screen when guarding one of the best penetrators/dimers in college hoops. The defender should have gone through the screen on the ball side cutting off the lane. Horrible.

If that was a shooter like Richardson or to a lesser extent Paul, by all means trail the screen, chase them off the jumper and roll the dice with these two players in the lane.

For Texas to have a chance stopping the Illini motion this can’t happen. This young Longhorn team will have to pay particular attention to the strengths and weaknesses of who they’re guarding or they’ll be making the task of defending Weber’s mix-master doubly hard.

As for the frontcourt and the other instructive part of the video, the Texas bigs are going to have to be prepared to hedge these screens and then recover to different parts of the floor. Same play, but watch where Tisdale the screener goes because this will be an important point for Tristan Thompson.

Instinctually, a big man is going to hedge or help to a down screen or a flex cut and then recover to the goal because that’s typically where the screener (his man) is going. If you’re guarding Tisdale, however, you have to be prepared to recover away from the bucket as Tisdale floats to his “sweet-spot” which is 15 feet out. The senior Illini post is slightly built and has the tendency to shy away from contact. He’s actually a wheelhouse type of cover for Thompson physically, so that’s some more good news. It's just a matter of Thompson being able to pay attention to the scouting report.

Illinois’ other post, Mike Davis, is going to screen and dive or screen and rescreen, but ultimately he wants to occupy and carve out space on the weakside block for easy offensive rebounding opportunities. He won't float to find his face up game. The Texas bigs have to help and recover with this in mind.

Offensive Keys

Running Offense With Balbay.

Since Balbay is going to be an important cog in stopping the Illini and specifically McCamey, Texas has to find some ways to improve offensive efficiency with him in. I’d start with pushing tempo which, if you read Scipio’s article, sounds like a distinct possibility.

The other good news on this front that Barking Carnival’s codgy old veteran typed about was Rick Barnes’ consultation with Bobby Knight which means a move to more of a motion type offense. Motion offense would be a boon to Balbay’s game because the off the ball screens that Doge sets forces Balbay's defender to guard or at least hedge to a player instead of helping to the ball. This means the pass and pick away motion game allows Barnes to dictate where Balbay’s man has to help to. That’s huge for an offense that was stifled by one man zones last season.

Manufacturing Offense

The Illini are going to roll out a three guard look unless Jereme Richmond is in the game. Keep in mind that means Richardson or Paul, both undersized players to be true 3’s, must guard the 6’8” Jordan Hamilton. This is when Barnes can go with the 1-4 low looks with Hamilton iso'ed up top that we’ve talked about in the offseason.

For a handful off possessions, I'm suggesting we allow Jordan to work from the top of the key and then create offense backing down the undersized Illini group to score or find teammates for easy looks. Hell, do it at the end of the shot clock on occasion when your sets and motion have bogged down. It’s a great opportunity to get Jordan involved as a leader and take pressure off of the Longhorn backcourt.

Also, if Texas can be patient enough and take good shots, Hamilton has a distinct advantage on the offensive glass to create more possessions and points with Richardson or Paul charged with block out responsibilities. The key is to get good looks with good ball movement that breaks down the Illini defense creating mismatches on the glass.

Prediction

For Texas, this is a huge test against what should be a sweet sixteen caliber team. There’s no shame in losing to the Illini, but if the Horns can find a way to beat an experienced team away from Austin, it portends of good things for a program looking for resurgence and redemption, and a coach that has taken a good hard look in the mirror.

I think the Longhorns have the talent to play with the Illini and I think Balbay/Joseph can give McCamey fits, but I can’t get past how poorly Texas played on the defensive end last season, particularly away from the ball. Weber’s motion game is designed to feast off of unsound defensive principles specifically the off the ball type. Unfortunately it takes time to fix that kind of problem and I’m not sure the Horns have corrected it yet. I guess we’ll find out tonight.

For that reason, I’ll take the Illini in a competitive game that ends up being a building block for both teams. 74 to 69. Illinois.

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