Back & Forth - November

Nov 29, 2019

Haven't done a back-and-forth in a while. But as I vacillate between "it's not there, is it?" and "ARE WE GOING TO WIN 25 GAMES?", I needed Tyler's help. Especially after two games where we scored 120 and 117. So here's our emails back and forth this week. Starting with my email to him on Monday afternoon:

So it took me exactly three halves of basketball (five if we're going to include Lindenwood) against horrible competition to go from wondering if this team doesn't have it to wondering this:

If this is what we're getting from Kofi - not only Big Ten Freshman of the Week, but Big Ten Player of the Week - then should we expect something better than the 21 wins both you and I think this team is capable of?

I agreed with the 10-2 non-con, 11-9 Big Ten, 21-11 going into the BTT that you predicted in the preview. For that, as I noted in the roster breakdown, I was expecting a first team All Big Ten performance from Ayo, pushing for second-or-third-team performances from Giorgi and Trent, and then maybe 7 ppg, 5 rpg from Kofi. If Kofi is going to be a double-double guy (or, at the very least, if Kofi is going to be far beyond 7 and 5), should I expect something more than 21 wins? And that's not even mentioning Andres Feliz who is averaging 15.2 ppg and 7.2 rpg (7.2! for a point guard!).

So just looking at the individual performance of the five starters so far: better than 21 wins? Or am I getting ahead of myself?

Maybe a little bit? I'm not ready to change my 21 win projection just yet. My mind still keeps falling back to Trent's first free throw late in regulation against Nicholls State. If that four bouncer doesn't drop we probably lose that game and we're already in scramble mode instead of discussing whether 21 wins is floor or ceiling. And yes, that was over three weeks ago and Nicholls State did beat Pitt and take LSU to the wire, but I still feel a little uneasy with this team.

I texted you before the Hawaii game to say that I needed to see some dominance from over the next three games (I'm not counting anything about this Lindenwood thing tonight. I'm still not sure why this game existed) and I feel like we got halfway there. The five minutes you wrote about after that game, the second half against the Citadel, and the full 40 against Hampton. 65 minutes of dominance out of 120. Against a trio of opponents with an average KenPom rating of 250 - that's not enough dominance.

Also - I should clarify that my 21-10 projection was based on a 10-1 non conference record and then 11-9 in the Big Ten. December is a crucial month - with Miami and MIZNOZ sandwiched around the two early conference games against Michigan and Maryland. We have to go 3-1 against the 4 M's just to feel comfortable getting to 21 wins - let alone projecting beyond that. If you feel good about those four games right now, then go ahead and get ahead of yourself. I still need to see more. Our best stretch of basketball was the first 30 minutes against Arizona. I want to see 40 minutes of that level of play against a quality opponent.

Gmail does those "suggested replies" things and here are my three choices for this one:

Got it.
Sounds good.
Sounds good to me.

I don't think any of these things sound good to me. My football team is bowling AND NOW I WANT TO DRINK BASKETBALL KOOLAID.

You're right, of course. 65 minutes of good, 55 minutes of "ehhhh", and here I am thinking 21 is shooting too low. We'll be down 25-14 in the first half against Missouri with Mark Smith scoring 13 and I'll be ready to jump again. I'm basically the Lindenwood fan who was seated behind me last night. Lindenwood went up 8-2 and he was already "oh my God, we can win this".


So yes, I'll eventually calm down. But I'm still stuck on these five starters. You know me - I'm a "roster>coaching" guy, so here's how I'm looking at it. Let's compare this team to, say, 2013/14. That's the year after BP3/DJ/Griffey graduated when Hill and Nunn were freshmen. The starters were Abrams-Bertrand-Rice-Ekey-Egwu, we won 20 games (18, really - two of those wins were in the NIT), and came close to making the dance. Let's just compare these five starters to those five starters.

Sophomore Ayo vs. junior Tracy - Ayo, right? Has to be Ayo. He should be a first-round draft pick after this season.
Junior Trent vs. senior Bertrand - Gotta give it to Trent. JoeBert had crazy athleticism but Trent brings more.
Senior Feliz vs. junior Rice - OK we'll give this one to Rayvonte. As I recall, junior Rayvonte led us in points, rebounds, and steals.
Sophomore Giorgi vs. senior Ekey - Big fan of Ekey's one year here, but this goes to Giorgi fairly easily, I think.
Freshman Kofi vs. junior Egwu - Egwu wins on defense (a big reason we won 20 games that year, but Kofi is averaging 15 and 12.

So when I take out everything and just look at the roster and the number of returning players, ignoring the schedule for a second (I know, it's dumb, but this is how I do it with football too which is why I predicted 7-5), this starting five should win at least 21 games and probably 24. Yes, there are factors I'm ignoring that attack my stance from every angle (the difficult Big Ten schedule with double-plays against all the top teams, the way we looked in those last ten minutes at Arizona, the fact that we only won 12 games last season, Nicholls State), but if we just look roster, I feel like this is a team that should win 23+.

Yes, I'm crazy.

While I'd probably give you that this year's team beats the 2013-14 squad 7 of 10 times, I'm not sure I'm ready to make a win projection for this year based on that comparison. Too many variables.

My takeaway from your response above is you are essentially making the continuity argument. Three returning starters plus a fourth who played starter minutes last season. 73% continuity of minutes from last year. Plus the one newcomer is the early front runner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

On the surface it might seem logical to argue that bringing back everyone from a 12 win team is just pushing replay on the same lousy team, historical precedent argues otherwise. While there are always exceptions, teams that maintain a greater than 70% continuity of minutes played from one season to the next tend to get better - Much better.

So are we the exception or the rule? You can choose to look at the same roster two ways.

Half Full
We haven't been performing at fully armed and operational mode because Ayo, Giorgi, and Trent have yet to achieve their expected All-Conference level of play. Once those three get things rolling then look out America!

Half Empty
We're only playing so well because of unexpectedly great performances from Cockburn and Feliz. Unfortunately that's our ceiling because it's doubtful that Ayo, Giorgi, and Trent are going to play much better than they have. We should not expect significant improvements from those three because they were so good last year they can only "leap" so much.

Should we bet optimistic because we haven't had Ayo, Giorgi, and Trent have yet to play up to last year's level or should feel pessimistic because of the same rationale? I've generally leaned optimistic throughout my life, but...

I always identify a game or two in the early part of the season as the "When I Learn Everything I Need to Know" games. As I noted in the Season Preview, those two games for me are our next two home games. Miami and Michigan. Two solid teams - but two games you MUST win on your home court. I just can't make the leap until after those two games.

(Hours after Tyler sent me that, Michigan beat North Carolina and will likely come to town ranked 12th or so.)

I saw someone refer to the next three as the "three M's" - Miami, Maryland, and Michigan. When you toss out Old Dominion and North Carolina A&T, really, there's five "M's". So much of this season will be decided by:

Michigan State

If both Michigan State and Maryland are still in the top five by the time we play them, I guess it's kind of silly to add them to this list. Even the 2005 team would struggle to win conference road games against teams ranked in the top-5. But Illini football beat number six Wisconsin, so I'm still in "never say never" mode.

But 3-2 there is the goal, right? If you lose to Michigan at home, you'd better find a way to win at Maryland or Michigan State. 3-2 in those and I think things are on track. Which means... 5-2 in the next 7. Which means... 11-3 with Purdue coming to town on January 5th.

I just realized all I did here was agree with you. Yep, gotta beat Miami and Michigan.

Yeah we should probably elevate Michigan above the "solid" range. In fact it looks like the Big Ten as a whole is better than first projected. My stream of consciousness (you get two SOC's today!) Big Ten rankings entering December compared to pre-season expectations:

As Expected:

Worse Than Expected:
Michigan State (but still really good)

Better Than Expected:
Penn State
Ohio State

Five "betters" and only four "worses". There you have it - irrefutable mathematical proof that the Big Ten is better than we thought before the season started. In truth, though, the calendar will hit December with seven Big Ten teams showing up in the KenPom top 30. The upshot here is it appears there will more opportunities to rack up Quad 1 wins in conference play than we initially thought.

Before the season started, I was concerned that even if we got to an 11-9 conference record our tournament resume' would be in the double digit seed range because of a weak Big Ten. Based on the first month of games, I'm thinking we should trend that upward. In fact, even 9-2 non conference and 10-10 in the league is looking like it will earn a solid bid.

BUT - if this Illini team is as good as they expect to be then games at home against Miami and Michigan are games you win. An NCAA tournament team needs to hang some top 20 skins on the wall.

I predicted 21 wins and I WANT 21 wins (at least).


Giovantischixstripz on November 29 @ 04:26 PM CST

At this point I am cautiously more optimistic than when the season began, despite the non-convincing wins vs a few weak teams and the ugly last 10 minutes vs Arizona.

This is mainly because of the things highlighted in the Change Management article. My biggest concern was BU was going to be stubborn with his aggressive systems that aren't a fit for having both Giorgi and Kofi on the floor, but he has adjusted and the underlying stats, and the eye test the last few games (even against horrible competition) show me they are figuring it out. Also Giorgi is making teams respect him from 3 which I was doubtful of and opens up a lot more options for penetration and high lows for the offense. I love those fake shot dump down to Kofi passes Giorgi is using.

53rd best in the nation at avoiding fouls, and also 52nd best at drawing fouls. 2nd best rebounding rate in the country. 59th best effective field goal rate in the country. All huge turnarounds from last year. On the flip side, we aren't forcing turnovers anymore and are turning the ball over way too much, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives. The forced turnovers is probably going to stay low, but I think as the team adjusts to playing with Kofi that our turnovers are going to continue to go down as they have the past few games.

I agree I think we are going to learn a lot about this team in the stretch from Monday to Braggin Rights. If we get through that with only 1 loss (most likely at Maryland) we will be in good shape heading into 2020 and things will be looking up.

larue on November 29 @ 05:41 PM CST

Well, Michigan stomped Gonzaga today and may come here ranked in the top 5. Still a game you really want to win, but I'm not sure the season swings on that one

Walkon on November 30 @ 07:05 AM CST

Yeah if Michigan finds a way to beat Louisville next week they’ll likely be #1 when they arrive in Champaign. So certainly not a season defining game if we lose - but a win would sure go a long way.

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