Here are four keys for Illinois in the Big Ten tournament this week:
1. Run the offense through Meyers Leonard in the low post: When Leonard is getting touches in the low post, good things happen for Illinois. For one, he’s often able to score inside or get open looks for others. But it also makes the big man happy, and that means he remains active defensively and on the glass. This was the case in Illinois’ last win against Iowa when Leonard had 22 points and 14 rebounds, including six offensive boards. He needs to be a game-changer like that throughout the game.
2. Shoot less 3-pointers: Illinois just isn’t a good 3-point shooting team. Sure, the Illini have players like any team capable of hitting open 3-pointers and getting hot, but it’s not something they should be banking on at this point of the season. The Illini are the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten (98 of 332 from 3-point range for a .295 percentage during conference play), and Penn State is the only other team under 30 percent. Illinois has had only a few games where it could be deemed a good shooting performance. The Illini hit 11 of 18 in an upset of Ohio State and connected on 4 of 10 in a victory over Northwestern. Illinois needs to keep its shots inside the 3-pointer line this week.
3. The team needs to play defense, but especially Brandon Paul: The Illini’s defense has been suspect throughout the second half of the Big Ten season, and Paul has been included in that. Paul admits he needs to play harder on defense. As versatile as any player in the Big Ten not named Draymond Green, Paul can win games for Illinois, and he showed that against Ohio State. He also came through against Minnesota and Michigan State. Paul just needs to get his defense going first and then his offense will come.
4. Try to repeat history: Illinois has traditionally succeeded in the Big Ten tournament, leading all teams with 23 conference tournament wins and a 23-12 overall record, including two championships and four second-place finishes. Even as a No. 10 seed in 2008, Illinois reached the championship. Only twice has Illinois lasted one game in the tournament, last season and in 2006.