So that was fun. A blow out. An honest to goodness full throttle floor wiping. This game was pretty much over following the Trent Frazier Heat Check Spectacular in the first half. The Iowa game ghosts were fully exorcised as a 19 point lead at the break eventually ballooned to 43(!) midway through the second half and the Illini cruised to a 91-60 win against a not very good Rutgers team. Then again - Rutgers was a missed free throw away from knocking off MSU in East Lansing a couple weeks ago, so never take anything for granted in the Big Ten.
It's worth noting that in the big picture blowouts have meaning. This is not exactly revelatory news here, but yeah, the best teams year in and year out rank really high in scoring margin. It stands to reason then, that proper stompings such as tonight have not exactly been commonplace for Illinois in recent history.
Coming into tonight's game, over the last seven seasons (2012-2018) the Illini had only 11 conference wins with a 15 point or greater scoring margin. By contrast, in the seven seasons prior (2005-2011), Illinois had 25 such wins.
Now, tonight's blowout doesn't necessarily tell us all that much other than we played really well against a particularly bad team, but for future reference just know that it really does mean something if you are just squeezing by the Tennesse-Martins and Austin Peays of the world in November and December.
So no big picture stuff tonight, but this game did allow me to dream a little about what this group can bring when firing on all cylinders. Or really I should say when not shooting itself in the foot.
Let's be honest - this team has been a statistical nightmare up until tonight. Basketball stat geeks often refer to "The Four Factors". These factors refer to the four statistical categories which are thought to most contribute to a team's success. They are:
1. Shooting Percentage (effective FG%)
2. Turnovers (turnover rate)
3. Rebounding (offensive rebounding %)
4. Free Throws (free throw rate)
Generally - and I'm oversimplifying a bit - if a team consistently performs well in at least three of these areas, they're probably going to be successful on the whole.
So in conference play - even with tonight factored in - the Illini are either last or next to last in the conference in each of the factors. 13th in shooting percentage defense, 13th in allowing offensive rebounds, 14th in turnover rate, and 14th in allowing opponents to get to the FT line. And you wonder why we didn't have any Big Ten wins a week ago?
The bizarro thing is that that in two of the factors (turnovers and rebounding), the Illini are among the best and the worst in the conference. They lead the league in forcing turnovers - yet they've turned it over at the highest rate as well. They rank 3rd in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage, but also give up offensive rebounds at an alarming rate.
Illinois is the ultimate break even team - which doesn't work when trying to win the possession and shot volume game like Underwood wants to do. You can also game the system by shooting REALLY well, but the Illini have been just middle of the road in that area - certainly not good enough to overcome the statistical drag.
Tonight by contrast - everything clicked - especially on defense. Illinois was once again a turnover forcing machine, but unlike most other nights, the effect was not offset by allowing an astronomical shooting percentage on possessions that did not end in a turnover. Rutgers shot abysmally and allowed Illinois to enjoy a +21 advantage in points off turnovers even though the Illini turned it over 17 times themselves. Throw in a shooting performance well above the Illini norm for the year - and you get your 31 point beat down.
But by far the most fun thing from tonight was that if you squinted a bit, you could see the puzzle pieces start to align themselves. You had the inside game working with Black, the outside game going with Frazier, and a little bit of everything from Nichols. So now add Ayo to the equation, find some rim protection, and get sophomore leaps from DMW, Mark Smith, and Ebo and maybe we can start getting used to these blowouts again.
+ It was great to see Deron Williams in the building to attend his first Illini game since leaving the program. He entertained the assembled media prior to the game with a lively Q/A session during which he eviscerated former AD Mike Thomas. I quote: "I didn't care much for the previous AD - to say the least." Ouch.
+ Man was I wrong about Trent Frazier. I figured he was at least a year away from being physically ready to compete in the Big Ten, but the kid is just a flat out baller. You can't measure that special something he brings to the game, but whatever it is - he has ALL of it.
+ I know I've used this space on many an occasion to rage against the mid-range jumpshot, but man if I don't think every single one of Leron Black's baby hooks and elbow jump shots is going in when it leaves his hand.
+ Keep shooting Mike Finke.