No. 2 Baylor (2-0) takes on No. 5 Illinois (3-0) at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday in Indianapolis. The game airs on ESPN.
If you watched Brad Underwood, Illinois’ head coach, when he led Oklahoma State against Baylor in 2017, you’d be shocked how both teams have changed. Baylor now runs the much more aggressive defense and is led by a guard oriented attack. Underwood’s squad plays a conservative defense and wants to get their top 10 big man the ball as much as possible.
A big game deserves a giant preview. We’ll look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
After playing an aggressive “up the line” or “on the line” defense at Stephen F. Austin, Underwood worked that defense some in his one season in Stillwater. When he landed the Illinois job, he kept running that defense.
Unfortunately for Underwood, his defenses’ focus on ball denial and generating turnovers led to so many easy buckets. The Illini went 14-18 and 12-21 in Underwood’s first two seasons. In those two seasons, their defense ranked 129th and 108th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Last season, Illinois switched to a pack line defense. Virginia, Xavier under Chris Mack, Arizona and now Illinois run that allotment. The system is designed to prevent easy buckets near the hoop. Defenders stunt and provide heavy help in gap areas, which makes driving difficult:
While Illinois stopped forcing very many turnovers with their defensive switch, they improved more than 200 spots in defensive rebounding, free throw rate (how often they foul) and 2-point defense. They also improved by 179 spots in effective field goal defense:
The Illini defense effectively defensive rebounds and limits 2-point attempts by keeping Kofi Cockburn near the basket. The 7 foot center, along with the change to the pack line, helped Illinois go from allowing 38% of their shots at the rim in the 2018-2019 season to 29% of shots at the rim in the 2019-2020 season, per hoop-math. Opponents elected to take more 2-point jumpers, and the Illini had a much more efficient defense.
All defenses’ have flaws, and the pack line is particularly vulnerable to ghost screens. When a big man slips, especially after the ball has been reversed, creating too few defenders on one side, the offense can get easy looks. The Bears ran plenty of plays for Baylor at the end of the Arizona game, and they might try and slip Mark Vital or Jon:
Illinois likes to drop their big men in pick and rolls. They’ll also ice ball screens, looking to force the defender to not use the screen. But they primarily play drop coverage. When they do that, they’re vulnerable to floaters and guards that can get into the paint and force their big men to defend both the ball handler and a trialing screener:
The Bears need Jon or Vital to be a threat in some of those lob chances. If not, they can work and get some open mid-range jumpers. That shot isn’t always the most efficient—which is why it’s not in vogue—but Adam Flagler, MaCio Teague and Butler all hit that shot at a high enough clip that they may fire away from there.
Even though many pack line teams give up quite a few threes, Illinois hasn’t given up an insane number of them. They can be a bit hesitant to leave shooters on the other side of the court than some pack line teams. The pack line is often vulnerable to threes because defenders will jump into gaps to limit drives. That leaves those help defenders having to rotate back with their hands high to close, which can leave the recovering defender either late or vulnerable to a guard or wing that can hit a dribble three. The Illini will stay a little closer than other teams and focus on rotating back to shooters. But they’re still a pack line team, which means the Bears will have 3-point chances.
Ohio gave Illinois quite a scare. They had a lot of success running a version of horns that Baylor calls “eye.” In that set, two men set screens above the free throw line. Baylor had their most success with that play against Creighton in their early season tournament game during the 2017-2018 season. That play creates a bunch of options, especially when one of the two screeners can hit a three. The Illini prefer a conservative defense, and eye necessitates a lot of defensive choices:
The Bears did not run eye quite as much last season, but Davion Mitchell can rise if the defender backs off to deal with whatever the screeners decide to do. Illinois will give the ball handler space—their focus remains on not fouling or getting beat to the hoop—so the Bears may fire plenty of triples:
I’d expect to see a few more four guard lineups in this one. Baylor will want to create as much space as possible and force Cockburn to meet the ball. That will involve a tradeoff defensively, but the Bears have a lot of pieces to score against the pack line.
In another sign of how things can flip, Illinois now runs a lot of continuity ball screen. The Bears ran that offense for years, especially in the Rico Gathers and Johnathan Motley era. Illinois’ goal is to generate easy buckets for Cockburn:
The Bears will need to balance switching and fighting over those screens. Jerome Tang wasn’t happy with how Jon and Flo Thamba played defensively against Louisiana. But when I asked him how they did in the second game, he said they played better. He noted that Jon did a nice job calling out pick-and-roll coverage. They’ll need to make sure they don’t botch that if Baylor wants to drop or switch certain screens. Cockburn is far too good to give free paths to the hoop.
Focus too much on Cockburn though, and Illinois will hit threes. Underwood said on the Jon Rothstein podcast this week that he thought his team was a better 3-point shooting team than they ended up being last year. Through three games, they’ve hit 47% of their triples. Even if that’s way higher than they’ll finish, they’re almost assuredly going to be a solid team from deep. So the Bears can’t get confused on responsibilities for Cockburn and leave the arc open:
Illinois also works in high-low looks. Their passing from the free throw line works to take advantage of fronting defenses where the defender tries to steal the ball. Baylor’s used fronts before—especially against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse last year—but that dictates synchrony from the fronter and the helper.
With two horrendous opponents—including Chicago State, possibly the worst team in America—Illinois leads the country in offensive rebounding. That’s probably a bit inflated by eviscerating Chicago State. But they finished 11th in that category last year. The Bears had some rough moments defensive rebounding against Louisiana, so they can’t mess around and give Illinois second chances.
Ayo Dosunmu will draw plenty of attention. The junior guard elected to bypass the NBA Draft. He’s an adept passer that has also hit 6-of-14 threes this year. Mitchell will have a tough night working on him, but Mitchell’s made plenty of good players have bad games.
Baylor will have to decide if going smaller puts Vital in too much foul trouble. Illinois has an imposing frontcourt. Maybe that means Baylor stays big all night. They only played the Fival (Mark Vital at the five) for a few minutes in their first two games, and the offense had plenty of space with Flo and Jon out there. But they might have another level offensively with the Fival. The Bears will likely start and stay big for a while. But if the Bears need a spark, they have that lineup ready to trot out.
Illinois looked unstoppable against two terrible opponents, then they looked like a completely different team against Ohio. They were fortunate to escape against the No. 121 KenPom team.
Their performance against Ohio feels like a bad game. After playing two terrible opponents and having No. 2 Baylor as their next opponent, Illinois got cooked by Ohio’s best player, Jason Preston. If they played that game again, Illinois would likely win comfortably.
The Bears have real advantages against Illinois. It’s ridiculous how good Baylor’s top four guards are (and that’s not even getting into LJ Cryer being the fifth best guard on a college basketball team). Those guards will create huge issues if Illinois isn’t locked on Baylor’s guards. And Cockburn will need to hope Baylor settles for some long floaters and goes ice cold from two to hold Baylor to a low output.
Illinois has a path to winning this game. Maybe the Bears have a bad shooting night after starting the season 50% from deep. Or maybe Cockburn has a 30-20 game and Baylor needs a new strategy for defending the country’s best big men.
My guess is that the Bears’ guard potential overwhelm the Illini. Cockburn has a good day, but that’s enough when Underwood’s men meet Baylor’s guards. At least one of them goes off, and Matt Mayer hits a couple of big shots. Baylor wins 77-69.