I don't mean to make this a coaching carousel blog, but it's not exactly news that John Groce is on the hot seat. Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated recently put the odds of him being canned after the season at roughly "100%".
I don't think the Illini have gotten the memo, however. Since losing to Minnesota to drop to 3-8 in conference play, Illinois has won 4 of the last 5 and suddenly there's even talk of the Bubble. Some of that is scheduling, of course, as the top-6 teams in the Big Ten (by efficiency margin) are notably absent from that stretch. Even so, Illinois was until very recently only able to rise above Rutgers on a tempo-free basis. Now, the Fighting Illini are in the gooey center of the Big Ten.
What changed? Well, defense. Illinois was awful defensively to begin the conference slate, and for the most part Groce's team was just as bad as the defenses residing in Ann Arbor and Bloomington. But Illinois' opponents are no longer scoring at will inside of the 3-point line:
Penn State's recent thumping of Illinois in Champaign sticks out like a sore thumb, but aside from that, the trend is clear. As for what's driving it, that's less clear. Sure, there's been less playing time for the oft-injured Mike Thorne, and more playing time for the younger and bouncier Kipper Nichols, but that doesn't seem to correlate. But there is one oddity that does suggest at least some relationship:
Strange, huh? TeJon Lucas' minutes have steadily increased to right around 30 MPG, and there's also been a pronounced improvement on the defensive end. Now, Lucas is a 6-0 freshman and good defenses are rarely built around such things, so I'm hesitant to give Lucas too much credit. But it's also clear that Lucas is already a very good defender, and could be a great one.
For a reference point, here is how Jaylon Tate defended when he was getting the bulk of playing time:
Sure, Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan are talented players, but so are some of the players I'll show in a bit. But what is evident is that Tate does not have exceptional lateral quickness, and he gets upright (with his hands down or sort of flailing without bothering the ballhandler) rather quickly.
Here we have Lucas, picking up Tai Webster who is already in motion heading toward his strong hand, an obviously more difficult position for a defender. But not only does Lucas beat Webster to the baseline, he's able to do so without turning his hips and while keeping his hands high. The end result is that Webster has not gotten to a favorable spot, and he has no easy options to pass. It's a bad shot.
Perhaps more importantly, Lucas is aware of what's happening away from his man. Here, Nebraska has an excellent angle for a high-lo post entry pass, and it's well-executed. This should be a dunk for Jordy Tshimanga. But as soon as he turns to the basket, Lucas is there and strips the ball. An opportunity for an easy two-pointer is erased.
Finally, I'd like to just play what might be the best piece of individual perimeter defense you'll see in the Big Ten this season. Lucas probably isn't the Big Ten's best perimeter defender—like all freshmen, he has lapses. But when he's dialed in, he's extremely tough for an offensive player to get rid of, even for talented guys like Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.
Again, Lucas' defense is almost certainly not the only reason behind Illinois' defensive improvement. But it's a big part of it. And defense has carried this team to the doorstep of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid. By extension, the team is effectively defending its coach.