Duke and Illinois have two big things in common — both teams fell flat in their first big test of the season, and both teams will have another chance to prove themselves come Tuesday night.
After rattling off three victories to start the season, the Fighting Illini met their match against second-ranked Baylor last time out. Despite the loss, head coach Brad Underwood has his team flying high offensively, with star point guard Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore big man Kofi Cockburn leading a young, talented group that ranks among the best in the nation. Significantly improved from last year’s breakout season, Illinois is sure to provide another stiff test for the Blue Devils on their homecourt in this week’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
If it is to contend for the victory, Duke must be prepared to slow a fast-paced Illinois attack. With so many talented guards on the roster, the Fighting Illini excel at getting out in transition and moving off the ball. In half-court sets, the program emphasizes what it calls “mass movement” — every player is in motion at all times. Illinois employs many combinations of dribble handoffs, ball screens and rolls in order to confuse the defense and create open looks.
The two clips below are great examples of how the Fighting Illini implement mass movement into their half-court offense. In the first, Giorgi Bezhanishvili sets a ball screen for Dosunmu, while an off-ball screen is set to spring open Adam Miller beyond the arc. With so many moving pieces, Dosunmu faces a few choices: he can find Miller for an open three, drive or shoot himself or find the rolling screener in the paint.
In this case, the Baylor defenders fail to switch properly, leaving two men to guard Dosunmu and none to guard the wide-open Bezhanishvili beneath the rim, who Dosunmu hits for the easy score. The second clip demonstrates more of the same, but in this case, Dosunmu decides to rise up and shoot it himself. Notice how the play is set up to get Dosunmu moving from left to right — many set pieces for Illinois incorporate this seemingly minute detail. The junior guard is, however, the star, and the coaching staff in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. is not shy about playing to his strengths.
This sort of motion offense, however, could be rendered useless without the presence of a legitimate interior threat. While Illinois’ roster is chock-full of talent in the backcourt with Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, and freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, its true co-star alongside its reliable point guard comes in Kofi Cockburn, the 7-foot sophomore and 2019-20 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. His domination in the paint takes a large burden off of Dosunmu and his extremely high usage rate, and generally opens up the floor for his teammates to receive open looks. Of course, much of the offense runs straight through the big man down low. In the clip below, see how his ball screen confuses the defenders into both switching onto Dosunmu, leaving the Jamaica native open to finish at the rim, plus the foul.
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While this style of offense can often be a headache for opposing teams, there are times when the level to which Illinois works through Dosunmu becomes problematic, as was the case against Baylor. Bears coach Scott Drew pressured Dosunmu early and often, generally forcing him to defer to the likes of Frazier, Miller and Curbelo to run the offense throughout the game.
While all three are solid players in their own right, it is quite clear that the Fighting Illini offense is far more efficient when their star showrunner has free reign. On the final play of the first half of the game against Baylor, watch how the perimeter defenders swarm Dosunmu before he can find the rolling player or an open shooter. In the end, Illinois is forced to launch a bad shot with time running out.
When the Fighting Illini enter Cameron Indoor Stadium for yet another top-ten showdown Tuesday night, Duke will have its hands full with a quick, talented, well-coached team that can run circles around just about anyone. Whether or not Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his squad can handle Dosunmu, Cockburn and the rest of the Illinois offense will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of what is shaping up to be a good one in Durham.