Illinois is a curious team: they are wounded and struggling badly, with eight losses in their last nine games, and their coach's seat is as hot as the backyard grill that bears his name; they also feature exceptional athletic ability at several positions, most importantly at center, where Meyers Leonard has the frame and mobility (if not the shooting or skill) of a young Pau Gasol, and at shooting guard, where Brandon Paul has the capacity to score 40 if you don't watch him. Oh, and the one win in the last nine games came against Iowa, a team that has no one to match up physically with Leonard and who allowed Paul to score 17 points on nine shots against them.
The first question any team has to answer when playing Illinois is simple: how are you going to defend Leonard. No team in the Big Ten has a player who is quite like Leonard in terms of size and mobility, but few teams are as challenged in that department as Iowa, a team that frequently plays a 6'8" freshman or a 6'7" sophomore as their "center." So what can an undersized team do to stop Meyers Leonard? To find the answer, I decided to watch the Penn State-Illinois game from January 19th of this year. In that game, an undersized and arguably outmatched Nittany Lion team managed to beat the Illini 54-52 in Happy Valley. Here's what their game plan seemed to be:
1) All zone, all the time
Meyers Leonard represents a manifold threat to a team. Not only does he score in the low post, but if you devote double teams to him, he can also compromise your three-point defense and your defensive rebounding. Penn State dealt with this by going to a match-up zone for the entire duration of the game. Instead of guarding him straight up or vainly trying to deny the ball via fronting, Penn State used the zone to clutter entry passes and slow down dribble penetration by the guards. Leonard still scored 15 points on 6-12 shooting, but Penn State did manage to make offense slow torture for Illinois. Just as importantly, they fought Illinois to a draw on both the offensive and defensive glass, an impressive achievement for a team whose tallest starter ran 6'8" and who frequently featured a four-guard offense.
Illinois also seemed to suffer a bit from Gopher-itis when it came to attacking a zone. In much the same way that a more athletic Minnesota team became listless and static when Iowa went to the zone, Illinois seemed to somehow lose their focus and energy against Penn State. This ennui spread to Leonard as well, who spent much of the game hanging out on 15 feet from the basket on the baseline instead of working for position near the rim. Northwestern showed Iowa the way in this respect: zone defense has ability to get into the heads of opponents who aren't adept at attacking it, forcing them to think too much and work too little.
2) Don't worry about the three -- worry about Paul and Richardson.
Despite Paul's prowess from behind the arc, there's a dirty little secret you should know about Illinois: they can't shoot threes. They are the worst team in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage at 29.5% and feature only two players with three-point percentages above 30%: Paul (34.2%) and Richardson (34.9%). This is just one more recommendation for zoning the Illini up: with two notable exceptions, teams can afford to risk three-point shots from the Illinois players. When you consider the attention Leonard draws in the post, their lack of long-distance shooting prowess becomes even more remarkable. Iowa needs to pay careful attention to Paul and Richardson, of course, but they should know that Joseph Bertrand, Tyler Griffey, Sam Maniscalco and Tracy Abrmas are all sub-30% three-point shooters. Also, if Leonard ever decides he wants to take a shot from deep, or even from 12 feet from the basket: LET HIM. He is a very athletic player, but not a particularly deft shooter yet.
3) Don't attack the rim
Iowa made the mistake last game of taking the ball directly at Meyers Leonard. This didn't work out so well, and Leonard finished the game with two blocks and many, many shots-altered. Going straight at Leonard is a bad idea for two reasons: 1) he is an enormous human being, and 2) as long as he is near the basket blocking shots, he is also near the basket grabbing rebounds. In other words, going for dunks on Leonard is folly in its own right, but it's doubly worse because it almost guarantees that any missed shots will be converted into Illinois rebounds.
Iowa needs to draw Leonard away from the basket however they can. One good approach is the three-point shot, which Illinois happens to be terrible at defending. The Illini are second to last in the conference in opponent three-point percentage at 40.5%. Iowa may be well-served in this game going with their small-ball, all-shooters line-up of Gatens, Oglesby, Marble, White and McCabe, rather than trying to match Illinois strength for strength by running Brommer, Archie or Basabe out there. Basabe, in particular, struggled against Leonard, as he does against any player with a significant size advantage. In these situations, he doesn't have the shot range or handles to punish larger players on the perimeter, nor does he have the height, reach or strength to bang with them inside. Unfortunately, this is a game where Basabe's skills don't quite fit. A better idea might be to put White and McCabe in the game and have them draw Leonard out to the three-point line whenever possible. Then it will be up to the rest of the team to crash the boards hard whenever an outside shot goes up.
So that's it. That's the plan. Who knows if this is how Iowa will attack Illinois, but whatever they do, it will all come down to how well they deal with Leonard. He's a hulking, baby-faced beast, and Iowa needs to do all they can to minimize the damage he inflicts. That or Gatens needs to go off for 40. Illinois is so erratic that it's hard to know how the Illini will play, but they feel like a team that is ready to self-destruct. If Iowa keeps their cool and plays a steady, patient game (and if the good Bryce shows up) they have a very good chance of advancing. Go Hawks!