John Groce was “scared to death” watching Northwestern drain 11 threes and give Ohio State all it could handle on Thursday. The Illinois head coach was far from that on Sunday night.
The Wildcats, a team that according to Groce “carved [Illinois] up” last time the two teams met, shot a measly 25 percent from the floor. That number was aided by a handful of garbage-time baskets that mercifully kept Northwestern’s performance from being the lowest scoring in head coach Bill Carmody’s 13-year tenure.
In his first year at Illinois, Groce learned the dangers of Northwestern’s Princeton offense the hard way in January’s loss. His then 23rd-ranked Illini allowed the Wildcats 68 points, including eight three-pointers at home in Champaign. Safe to say, the players responded Sunday.
“I’m really proud of our guys for the way that they defended,” said Groce. “When we play well, it really starts with our defense; I thought we were really locked in. I think our communication has gotten better, and guys executed the gameplan well.”
Though Groce wouldn’t share his specific defensive tweaks, a few changes were visibly apparent. Illinois dogged Northwestern on ball screens, doubling aggressively and oftentimes forcing the Wildcats to pick up their dribbles earlier than they wanted. This forced Northwestern to into looks that weren’t always in the flow of their offense—a key to success Bill Carmody often harps on.
By pressuring Northwestern in this manner, the Illini left screeners Mike Turner and Alex Olah wide open, two freshmen that have yet to establish themselves as midrange threats. That was no different Sunday, and Illinois could afford to pester ballhandlers accordingly. Northwestern was frequently forced into deep, contested shots late in the clock, and Groce emphasized the importance of limiting the Wildcats from distance.
“Everyone knows their three-point production was twelfth in the country coming into the game,” said Groce. “If you let them get clean looks from three and they make them, it’s on. They missed some [open shots] tonight, but I felt we at least challenged them a bit more and made them more difficult to get.”
Groce emphasized a team defensive mentality, explaining, “it’s not about if my man scores.” He added that big men Sam McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu covered for “a multitude of sins,” allowing for occasional perimeter mistakes. And for every bit as good as Illinois was on defense, Northwestern struggled equally on the other end.
“We were a little out of rhythm at times, but the shots we got, we need to make,” said senior guard Alex Marcotullio. “That’s the bottom line: you get an open shot, you have to knock it down. That’s how were going to win games.”
Northwestern’s dismal numbers didn’t lie. The Wildcats committed an uncharacteristic 14 turnovers, many unforced. They shot 5-27 from behind the arc, with occasional airballs mixed in. It took them nearly seven minutes to open their second-half scoring, and by then they were already down huge, 45-17. Whether it was Illinois’ defense, a flat offensive effort or some mixture of the two, the Wildcats didn’t have enough to stay with the Illini.
“If we’re not scoring, it really makes it tough on our defense,” said Carmody. “You have to make shots, and we weren’t able to do that tonight. Their defense, it [was] incredible.”
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