Earlier this week, after Illinois beat the Citadel in a game in which they struggled in the first half before pulling away in the second, I wrote about the relevance of the victory margin. You remember - how really good teams should beat really bad teams by a lot of points?
Illinois 120 Hampton 71. Yeah, that's more like it.
Over the past three games, the Illinois season victory margin has gone from +3 to +15. Of course that's what a single 49 point blowout will do for you, but it's not about each individual game. It's more about the sum total of how you performed against inferior competition. Scoring margin equity if you will.
I don't think stats from next Tuesday's game against DII Lindenwood count officially, so amazingly, the cupcake portion of the Illini schedule is already almost over. Only Old Dominion - maybe the best of the "buy" game teams (150-ish in KenPom) - on December 14 and North Carolina A&T - maybe the worst of the buy game teams - on December 29. That's it. Every other game this season will be against high major competition.
Obviously scoring margin will shrink in conference play - even for the best teams - so there's not much more time for Illinois to submit evidence on their ability to avoid playing down to the competition. Last night, the Illini took care of business.
Hampton had no interest whatsoever in playing defense, but this was a singularly impressive performance nonetheless. 120 points - the most for an Illinois team in over 25 years. Every single player on the roster scored - including 10 points from walkons! 64% shooting from the field. A 43-21 rebounding advantage. 29 assists on 45 made baskets. Statistical dominance and continued evidence of the transformation of styles we've seen this year compared to Brad Underwood's first two teams.
After the Citadel game, Underwood admitted this change in identity came following an off-season of "self-reflection". In the Twittersphere and on message boards everywhere, it is commonplace for fans to enlist the pitchfork brigade and collectively gnash their teeth about coaches never making adjustments. Well, not only did Underwood make adjustments - he engineered a complete overhaul. Some stats (with associated national rankings) to consider:
Defensive turnover percentage
Last year: 21.7% - 24th
This year: 17.7% - 259th
Offensive rebounding percentage
Last year: 29.1 - 148th
This year: 46.6% - 1st (!)
Defensive rebounding percentage
Last year: 70.5% - 289th
This year: 81.8% - 38th
Defensive free throw rate
Last year: 42.4 (338th)
This year: 18.2 (12th)
Fouls per possession
Last year: 28.7% (335th)
This year: 20.7% (46th)
Two point FG% allowed:
Last year: 53.6% (308th)
This year: 45.9% (119th)
Last year: 40.6% (240th)
This year: 73% (15th)
The differences are staggering. The identity of last year's team was wrapped almost exclusively around a hyper aggressive defense designed to create turnovers and force teams into isolation situations at the end of the shot clock. As was well documented, the defense was good at the turnover thing, but also too often gave up easy looks at the rim, fouled at a historic rate and allowed far too many offensive rebounds.
Through six games - despite a dramatic drop in forced turnovers - Illinois has become a dominant rebounding team, is among the best in the country at minimizing fouls, and have dramatically improved the two point field goal percentage defense. It's far too early to make any grand conclusions on how the Illini will finish in these rankings as the season progresses and the competition stiffens, but the raw numbers are unquestionably indicative of a massive change in philosophy.
Admittedly there is a pretty heavy "Kofi Factor" cooked into these numbers. You can't bring in a low post guy like him and not change some facets of your approach. However, I included the continuity percentage, because it reads to me that Underwood took stock of his returning roster - including the incoming Kofi Cockburn - and made adjustments relevant to the relative strengths and weaknesses of his returning roster.
All fans can ask of a coach is for him to maximize the schematic advantage based on the personnel at his disposal. At first glance it sure seems like Underwood has embraced that challenge.
+Another game - another double double (20/13) from Kofi Cockburn. Beyond the rebounding numbers, I've been impressed by his ability to avoid foul trouble - normally a big concern with young big men. A big part of the reason he's been able to make such an impact is that he's been on the floor for 26 minutes per game - good for 4th on the team.
+Trent Frazier was a defensive demon last night. Illinois held NBA prospect Jermaine Marrow to an 8-22 shooting performance - due in large part to the efforts of Frazier. He only took two of Illinois' 70 shots on offense last night, but he impacted the game more than anyone on the other end of the floor. Frazier - who led Illinois in field goal attempts as a freshman, has only taken 10% of the Illini field goal attempts so far this season. His maturity and acceptance of an evolving role is the very definition of what you want from an upperclassman and team leader.
+We have seen flashes from Alan Griffin through the first five games, but consider last night his official breakout game. A career high 19 points (his previous high was 11) to go along with 6 rebounds. He has a preternatural knack for offensive rebounding to go along with a great shooting stroke, sneaky great athleticism. He also does not lack for confidence. I was driving the Alan Griffin hype bus this summer during after the Italy trip, and still feel like he is going to be a key factor this season as the primary offensive threat off the Illini bench. My guy!