Momentum in sports is a fickle thing. You often see momentum ebb and flow over the course of a single game, but it's a little trickier to grasp from game to game. In baseball the old adage says that momentum is only as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher. In college basketball - particularly in conference play - I'd argue that it's only as good as whenever the next road game shows up on the schedule. Especially when talking about an Illinois basketball team that is relying on its youth more and more with each game.
As such Illinois taking a beating today was actually kind of predictable. A young team coming off the high of that first conference win was ripe for an emotional let down and acutely vulnerable to a veteran Iowa team riding a four game win streak. Plus Iowa is really good folks.
Even so, coming off of the best game Illinois has played in the last two seasons, high hopes were in surplus heading into today. Of course, after the 95-71 loss, the needle of fan angst predictably swung full force back to the opposite end of the spectrum. Yet I'm not viewing this game as momentum lost because I'm not sure there was any momentum to begin with. I'm not inclined to take too much bad from today just as I wasn't getting drunk on optimism after the win against Minnesota.
The numbers today were, of course, beyond ugly. The Hawkeyes shot a scorching 68% from the field for the game - a Carver Hawkeye arena record. They made 15 of 21 shots (71%) from the arc - including seven straight at one point in the second half. In the interest of equal time they were only slightly worse on two point attempts at 66%. In fact, 94% of Iowa's points today were converted either in the paint, from the behind the arc, or at the free throw line. THAT is how an efficient offense performs.
Still, that Iowa had such an incredible shooting performance is kind of just white noise to me. As we have talked about here before, effective three point defense can be viewed as more about preventing three point attempts than about the percentage a team shoots. Statistically speaking, a team being excessively hot or cold from three on any given night is kind of happenstance. As such, it's better to limit overall attempts in an effort to reduce an opponent's chances at the lottery so to speak. Coming into today's game, Illinois had allowed just over 18 three point attempts per game - 26th best in all of college basketball. In conference play (even including today) that number drops below 17 attempts per game. The point being here that the Illini three point defense - per one widely accepted metric - has been more than adequate this season.
And despite Iowa's historic shooting performance today, they are not a historically good three point shooting team. They came into today shooting 35.6% on the season - respectable but not otherworldly - and over their three games prior, Iowa had converted just over 32% of its three point attempts. More simply put, Illinois won the three point lottery against Minnesota, but they lost that lottery today.
Don't get me wrong though - I'm not here to absolve what was an abysmal defensive performance. The Illini took several steps backwards defensively today - and it wasn't just from deep. Iowa got just about anything they wanted today be it from the arc or at the rim. But again those days happen - just like it happened for Illinois last Wednesday. Up until today, Illinois had been better on defense in almost every measure compared to last year. The key now is to prevent performances like today from becoming the norm - as per last season's script.
So call me crazy, but this still feels to me like a team who on the whole is moving in the right direction. Even before the breakout game against Minnesota I saw what I thought were signs of encouragement. This group still needs to learn to close out tight games, but this is a team that has been quietly improving since Big Ten play started. Today was a setback but nowhere near a death knell. The trend most encouraging to me is the youth movement. The Illini have been playing better of late because its freshmen and sophomores have been playing better - which bodes especially well for the future because that's where the talent on this roster is.
In the eleven non-conference games on the Illini schedule, freshmen and sophomores accounted for 57% of the minutes and 61% of the scoring. In the seven conference games to date the underclassmen numbers jump up to 62% of the minutes and 73% of the scoring. That's the kind of trend I can get behind.
That said, it would be discouraging if the Illini lay an egg on Wednesday against Wisconsin as I'm looking at that game a much more impactful measuring stick than today.
+ Robert loves his comps so how about this Iowa team as one: 14-19 overall and 4-14 in conference last season with a freshman/sophomore dominated roster. A year of maturity plus a couple key additions and in just one year this is looking like a lock NCAA tournament team. That's a blueprint for this Illinois group - as long as they can avoid unwanted attrition.
+ Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery was asked afterwards if he could explain the Hawkeyes' shooting performance today and I thought his answer was great: "You have to empower your guys to shoot the ball without hesitation". An offensive player should always pass up a good shot for a better one, but I've seen far too many Illini players pass up good shots for worse ones this season as a result of being tentative.
+ If you are looking for at least one positive to take from today - then look at the offensive rebounding numbers. Illinois converted 13 second chance points off of 17 offensive rebounds. That comes off a 20 second chance point/12 offensive rebound game against Minnesota. The Illini have grabbed offensive rebounds on over 40% of their missed shots across the last two games - a rate that Brad Underwood has to love.