Change Management

Nov 24, 2019

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)

Minutes Continuity

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!


Brave Illini on November 24 @ 03:07 PM CST

I was wondering if there has been something about the coaching scheme, either defense or offense, that before this game contributes to our poor shooting percentage. Is there something that prevents our shooters from relaxing and shooting with confidence? Have the players been distracted by a need to concentrate heavily on certain things, that prevents attaining a flow and shooters finding a rhythm? Just curious.

NC_OrangeKrush on November 24 @ 06:31 PM CST

20+ years of Lou Henson ball showed me that defensively successful teams may disappoint to offensive expectations of fans, but they stay in most all games and win most of them. It takes a lot to play defense...

Walkon on November 24 @ 10:40 PM CST

I don’t think it’s too early to identify the new trends we’ve seen, but I do think it’s too early to be concerned with outside shooting percentages. The new distance might be a factor, but I really don’t think the lower percentages are due to any overthinking or distractions. At the end of the day, shooters shoot and I believe as the season moves along you’ll see guys like Ayo and Trent move closer to their percentages from last year.

Groundhogday on November 25 @ 07:53 PM CST

We hit 34.5% from the arc last season (okay, not great), and lost one of our two plus outside shooters to graduation (Jordan). Yeah, we are a bit off this season, but we are also playing more twin post rotations, and haven't really found a replacement for Jordan. Hoping Griffin becomes that guy.

Things will pick up, but we might not shoot as well from the arc this season.

NC_OrangeKrush on November 24 @ 06:26 PM CST

I hope the team will try to keep Trent engaged offensively. He IS the best proven shooter on the team... And we WILL need him....

Groundhogday on November 26 @ 11:36 AM CST

Trent is really the only proven shooter on this team. Ayo was good enough last year to keep teams honest, but not a good outside shooter by B1G standards. That’s it for returning shooters.

Gotta hope Griffin starts hitting, BBV acclimates, and Ayo I can hit 35% again. Giorgi seems to be developing into a reliable shooter when he picks his spots.

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