The Illinois Fighting Illini started 12-0, catapulting themselves into college basketball’s top 10 and bringing first-year head coach John Groce “Coach of the Year” chatter.
But the team has dropped four of its last six games, and they likely would have been out of the next set of Top 25 rankings if it weren’t for their dominant win over #8 Ohio State at home last weekend.
So what exactly is wrong with Bruce Weber’s former boys? I’ve narrowed it down to 3 main factors …
1. Reliance on Low Percentage Offense
If you follow the Big 10 or Illinois to any extent, you’ve probably heard analysts discuss at great length how U of I had dominated from behind the 3-point arc early in the season. That they were, as they led the entire nation in that department.
But in their four losses since the 12-0 start, the team has gone 23 for 96 from deep … or 24%. And 18 of those 23 makes came in the first two of the four losses, so it’s not like each of those games were extreme examples; instead they average together to be a pretty fair sample size.
If there is one conference in America this year that you don’t want to have to completely rely on the 3-pointer in, it’s the B1G, which is stocked with six ranked teams plus a couple more solid squads.
The rest of Illinois’ B1G schedule is going to be full of physical games. The competition isn’t just going to start playing into their hands and leave the outcome up to an outside shooting contest. So the fact that the Illini are 288th in the nation in assists could continue to haunt them.
In such a brutal conference that prides itself on a tough, bruising style of play, how could a team that relies on low-% offense combat their inevitable struggles? Well obviously with good rebounding. Unfortunately, that’s my next factor on the list of Illinois’ problem areas.
2. Lackluster Rebounding
This category is fairly simple. The Illini just don’t rebound the basketball. Some of that is probably because they take such low percentage shots, but since that is not something that’s going to change, you can assume the rebounding won’t either. Specifically, Illinois is 169th in the nation in rebounding, pulling in just 35.4 of them per contest.
The team’s leading rebounder is actually star scorer Brandon Paul, who corrals 4.9 boards per game. Their main two big men, sophomore center Nana Egwu and senior power forward Tyler Griffey, combine to average just 7.4 rebounds per contest. That’s quite lackluster compared to the 14.5 from Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Christian Watford, 14 from Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, and 14.7 from Michigan State’s Derrick Nix and Adrian Payne, and so on.
What this means is that the rest of the Big Ten’s best teams’ big men grab about twice as many rebounds as Illinois’ big boys do. That’s what I call a worrisome statistic.
The most notable way in which the Fighting Illini are too predictable is obvious: the 3-point shooting. They shoot 25 of them per game, compared to Indiana’s 18, Michigan’s 19.75, and Minnesota’s 15.75, for reference. So opposing defenses can and will continue to focus on closing in on the deep shooters. If the Illini are held to a less than stellar performance from behind the arc, more often than not it’ll be tough for them to be much better than a .500 team in B1G play – especially considering they’re already 1-3.
The other way in which the Illini are too predictable is when it comes to their offensive options, which are few and far between.
When you think of Illinois’ offense, you think of Brandon Paul.
The former Illinois High School Mr. Basketball is averaging 18.1 PPG in his senior campaign in Champaign, highlighted by his 35 point effort at Gonzaga earlier in the season. He’s struggled a bit from the field of late, but he has gotten some points in garbage time of recent games to garner respectable stat lines. Regardless, he’s a pretty good bet to be at or near the 20 point mark with regularity.
But when Paul doesn’t boast a good FG%, and doesn’t get to the free throw line as much as he usually can, Illinois needs other guys to step up. Outside of DJ Richardson hitting shots from deep and the occasional big game from Tracy Abrams or Joseph Bertrand, they don’t really have much generators on offense.
And again, in the brutal Big Ten, you need options.
I’m not sure the Illini will be able to overcome these struggles, per se. They will have plenty of games in which they light it up from downtown as a team and/or Brandon Paul goes off. And even when this doesn’t happen, they can still get wins over teams like Northwestern, Nebraska, and Penn State.
I see the Illini going 8-6 from here on out in Big Ten play and finishing with a .500 in-conference record. If they can win a game or two in the B1G tournament, that’ll probably be enough to get them into the dance come March.
But in order to do so, they need to combat some of the issues I’ve pointed out, or they will not be able to compete with the upper echelon teams in the conference.