I think I am going to keep going with some Big Ten teams, so today we take a look at the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini are 13-2 with wins at Purdue, at Vanderbilt, and neutral court wins over Missouri and a decent Tulsa team. Their two losses are to an undefeated Clemson team and at Michigan.
Illinois was a team that, up until the Big Ten tournament, really struggled to figure things out. They went 5-13 in the Big Ten and they were often difficult to watch. Offensively they were terrible as the struggled to shoot and they didn’t take great care of the basketball. Their best offense seemed to come right after Bruce Weber took a time out to draw up a play.
Things are looking better this year. Even with the departures of Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, it seems the Illini have gotten a huge boost from the play of their big men. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis have taken on big roles in the offense and they are really opening up the defenses for the rest of the team. Davis and Tisdale run pick and rolls and/or pick and pops with the guards to open themselves up for mid-range jump shots. Both are accurate and have shown nice touch from the mid-range and in. The 6’10” Davis is hitting on 53.4% of his 2-point attempts, while the 7’1” Tisdale is shooting 51.0% on his 2-point attempts. Neither of those percentages are eye-popping but teams have to respect them, and the ability of Tisdale and Davis to shoot free throws means opponents can’t resort to just hacking. Both are huge improvements at the foul line over Pruitt and Randle, and as a result the team free throw percentage has improved dramatically.
With teams respecting the mid-range jump shots of Tisdale and Davis, there is much more space on the perimeter for other Illini shooters. Trent Meachem, Chester Frazier and Demetri McCamey have taken advantage and the Illini as a whole have improved to a very respectable 37.6% on 3-point attempts.
Not only are the Illini shooting better this season, but they are taking better care of the ball. Chester Frazier has cut down on turnovers, and Meachem, Tisdale, and Davis use many possessions without coughing the ball over.
One area where the Illini miss Pruitt and Randle is on the offensive glass. Both Pruitt and Randle attacked the offensive glass very hard, giving the Illini an offensive rebound on 37.4% of their own misses last season.
The shortfall on rebounding has also translated to the defensive glass, where the Illini have also become fairly mediocre. Still, the defense has not had a dropoff from last year where it was their strongpoint. The Illini are instead playing better field goal defense, especially on the perimeter. It appears that McCamey, Frazier, and Meachem have done a pretty good job defending the perimeter this year and limiting opponents open looks from behind the arc. The 6’5” Calvin Brock also helps in that regard, and the impact of newly eligible Alex Legion, who is also 6’5”, may also help more. Legion may be the x-factor down the stretch for Illinois. The Kentucky transfer scored 12 points in the Big Ten opener against Purdue.
Illinois has been the benefactor of poor free-throw shooting by their opponents, and in that regard I feel they have been a little lucky so far. Opponents are making only 58.7% of their free throws against the Illini, and this is a stat that Illinois has no control over. That number will most likely even out to an average number and that should make the defense appear more mediocre.
In summary, Illinois misses Pruitt and Randle’s rebounding on both ends of the floor, but the offense has improved tremendously with Tisdale and Davis opening up space on the floor with their midrange jumpers and play off the pick and rolls. The free throw shooting of Tisdale and Davis has also made foul shooting a strength of the Illinois offense, which could not be said last year. Defensively, the Illini have maintained relatively the same amount of success without the rebounding prowess of Randle and Pruitt, because as a team the Illini are contesting shots better around the perimeter. There is speculation on whether they will begin to give up more points when their opponents begin to hit free throw shots at a more normal rate.