Men’s Basketball: Northwestern handles Illinois press as well as anyone, commit only eight turnovers


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Vic Law loses the ball. The Fighting Illini pressed Northwestern throughout the game.

Peter Warren, Web Editor

Men’s Basketball

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After Trent Frazier hit the first basket of the game for Illinois, a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, he did not run back down the court. Instead, he hustled his spot in the Fighting Illini’s 1-2-2 full court press, a staple of coach Brad Underwood’s defensive strategy.

Throughout the game — a 81-76 win for Illinois (11-18, 7-11 Big Ten) — the hosts broke out their press and defended Northwestern for the full 94 feet of State Farm Center hardwood. The Fighting Illini usually utilized a 1-2-2 press, but also matched-up in a man-to-man press as well.

But the Wildcats were up to the task. While the press had previously caused No. 6 Michigan State to make 24 turnovers and No. 17 Maryland to make 21, NU (12-17, 3-15) coughed the ball up only eight times, the lowest number of turnovers Illinois has forced in a game all season.

“If you were to tell me coming into the game we were going to turn it over eight times, you’re going to live with a couple of turnovers,” coach Chris Collins said. “They’re good at that. That’s what they do.”

Going up against the 1-2-2 press, senior forward Vic Law mainly paired with either sophomore guard Anthony Gaines, junior forward A.J. Turner or freshman guard Ryan Greer. Graduate guard Ryan Taylor also occasionally helped out.

Defensively, three players played at the top of the Illinois press. When the starting five was in the game, guard Aaron Jordan played as the first line of defense with Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu lining up on the top and bottom of the orange-and-blue “I” at center court. When Jordan was out of the game, Dosunmu or Alan Griffin was the “1” in the 1-2-2.

When a ball handler gets into one of the coffin corners on either side of the half-court line, the Fighting Illini trap. Dosunmu said that is one of the reasons the defense works so well.

“We get after them so when they get in that area, we trap them. We play off instinct,” Dosunmu said. “Then, when they get into the half-court, there’s 16 (seconds) left on the shot clock and that disrupts their offense.”

While the Fighting Illini did not force an extraordinary number of turnovers, the full court pressure did cause NU to be out of sorts offensively at times.

Twice, when Illinois went to a man-to-man press on an inbounds, NU was unable to inbounds the ball and had to call a timeout.

And when they did force a turnover, the Fighting Illini capitalized. After one turnover by Greer in the first half, Da’Monte Williams had an easy layup on the other end of the court. Another turnover by Greer led to a two-handed slam by Griffin.

“I thought it was really effective in the first half,” Underwood said. “I thought it just got them on their heels a little bit. I thought it got them out of rhythm.”

But those opportunities were few and far between for Illinois, who scored only six points off turnovers.

One thing Underwood said made a difference was that it had four ball handlers on the court at one time, and that, for the most part, there was no traditional primary ball handler on the hardwood.

Turner said he thought the team handled the press very well, and that the Cats spent “a lot” of time in practice working to break it. He added that Collins emphasized not picking up ones dribble because that would mean “you are left out for dead.”

Despite its effectiveness in breaking out of the press, NU were not as effective in cashing in. On that very first possession against the zone following Frazier’s trey-ball, the Cats did break the press and had a 3-on-2 opportunity. Freshman forward Miller Kopp caught the ball at the top of the arc and dished off to senior Dererk Pardon, who missed the dunk.

“Overall, I thought our spacing was good, guys were strong with the ball, and we could get it into the frontcourt and get good shots pretty much all night,” Collins said.

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