Christmas Back & Forth

Dec 25, 2019

Merry Christmas everyone. Santa got me a bowl game. Best gift since 2014.

Running opposite to all of my bowl game excitement: the fact that we lost all of our important non-conference basketball games. Which means it's time for another back and forth with Tyler. Not exactly spreading Christmas cheer but... there are some things we needed to talk out. Starting with this email I sent Tyler:

So here's where I'm at.

Trent can be a scoring machine.
Feliz can be a steady rock in the backcourt.
Ayo has the potential to be a first-round pick.
Giorgi has proven that he can take over a game in the paint.
Kofi is the favorite for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

And none of those things looked like the things they're supposed to be on Saturday (except maybe Ayo). I'm having a "sum of its parts" crisis and I need your help. I just don't understand how those five (potential) things lost every meaningful non-conference game.

It's been disheartening. I excused the end of the Arizona game - justifying the late collapse as a team just running out of gas down the stretch. I rationalized the Miami first half as an important lesson learned. I ascribed the unlikely sequence of events that resulted in the Maryland loss to bad luck and took away more positives than negatives. Now with a chance to finish the non-conference season strong and head into conference play on a four game win streak I was fully expecting this team to take care of business in St. Louis. Instead I got the most disappointing loss of the Brad Underwood era. Seems pretty clear I've been kidding myself to this point.

For two years, all we've asked for was a replacement level defense. A base system which could hold its own and allow the vaunted Underwood offense to put up points without giving them all back. So now, of course, we have a more than acceptable defense, and the offense can't get out of its own way.

Part of that is being the 315th ranked team in the country in three point shooting (28.5%), but fundamentally this team has shown itself to be woefully short on shot makers and shot creators. We can talk about scheme all day, but more often than not, games turn on those crucial possessions when the offense breaks down and you need someone to make a winning play under duress.

Making a contested shot. Breaking down a defense and finding an open shooter. Grabbing a tough offensive rebound to create another possession. We have been woefully short of those types of winning plays over the past month.

Look no further than the end of clock situations over the past four high major games against ("The 4 M's": Miami/Maryland/Michigan/Mizzou). Illinois had six end of half or end of game possessions in these four games. They ended like this:

1H Miami: Blocked shot
2H Miami: Turnover
1H Maryland: Feliz lay-up
2H Maryland: Turnover
1H Michigan: Possession ended with a Kofi Cockburn three point attempt (WTF?)
1H Mizzou: Turnover

One out of six with three turnovers. A 1-3 record in these games. For the love of James Naismith can someone please make a play?

As I said in my text to you on Saturday, this is really reminding me of my football mood post-Eastern Michigan. I guess that would be "for the love of Walter Camp", but everything else is the same: How can this team, with these players, do that? For me when it came to the football season, after the Minnesota loss, I felt like I was going crazy. I stood by everything I saw at Training Camp... yet those improved players, boosted by the transfers, were 2-4 (0-2) and had just been blown out at Minnesota. Howwww?

I guess that's my hope here - that there's a "second half of the Michigan football game" coming. Everyone snaps out of their trance and realizes the potential of their team (including the coaches). Maybe Ohio State moves to #1 and we beat them in Columbus when we go there in March or something and that's our Wisconsin moment.

BUT THAT'S THE THING. "Maybe Ohio State moves to #1" is the thing. Holtmann and Underwood were hired the same offseason. Yes, Holtmann had a head start roster-wise, and recent history suggests Ohio State was in a much better position to rebuild much quicker than Illinois (similar to how Minnesota football, coming off five straight bowl games, was in a better position to rebuild than Illinois football), but still, I just wrote "maybe Ohio State moves to #1" and nobody laughed. There's an example right over there of a coach putting all the right pieces together and climbing into the top ten. And here we are, even with all of our history, continuing to spin our wheels.

So let's start with Underwood. He had the #1 offense in the country at Oklahoma State, he now has a team of the guys he wants, and his offense isn't working. Whyyyy?

It's baffling to say the least. Underwood received well deserved praise for his successful defensive overhaul, but I'll admit to being somewhat perplexed by his eagerness to also scrap his spread offense so quickly. I mean that was his bread and butter, and we were all hypnotized by the prospect of scoring in seven seconds, first cutter layups, and multiple ball reversals.

"Scrap" might be too heavy a word as we are still running spread on occasion, but we've seen much more high ball screen/weave and high-low sets than we have traditional spread. The simplest rationale is that we've been trying to create opportunities for Kofi Cockburn in the low post, but as good as Cockburn has been - and he's been nothing short of fantastic - the offensive changes have come at a cost.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili has been an enigma. On one hand he is shooting and rebounding the ball better than he did last season, and he's getting to the foul line with greater frequency. On the other, he is turning the ball over on an eye-watering 28.6% of his possessions. That is borderline egregious for a ball handler. For a big guy - it's basketball malpractice. He turned the ball over six times on Saturday in 25 minutes. That just can't happen.

There is also the Damonte Williams paradox. DMW is sixth on the team in minutes, and while he can definitely impact the game defensively and on the glass, it's no secret that he's an offensive liability. Far too many possessions die on the vine when he's on the floor. Underwood is going to have to decide from game to game which side of the coin is more valuable.

That's just it, right? "Underwood is going to have to decide". This is the first season in a long time where I'm pretty much completely at "the coach needs to figure this out".

I'm the king of urging patience while we're rebuilding. I understand the task and am willing to wait for the payoff. But this season, man, just put the puzzle together, would you? I really think we have all the pieces.

Like Trent. We've texted about Trent. Here's where you should finish this back and forth with a bunch of words about Trent.

Yes, the biggest issue has been the relative absence of Trent Frazier. "Usage" is a fascinating metric. It's a way to quantify the degree to which a player is involved on offense. The stat used to measure this is "Percentage of Possessions Used" (%Poss) - which is simply the percentage of possessions "used" by a player when on the floor.

Here are Frazier's usage stats over his 2.5 years:

Freshman Trent: 25.3%
Sophomore Trent: 22.3%
Junior Trent: 13.8% (!!)

What do those numbers mean? KenPom frames usage as follows: "25% indicates a go-to guy, 20% is average, and 15% is a player with a limited role in the offense." Through the first 12 games, Trent Frazier has LESS THAN a limited role in the offense. What in the actual what?

In the D-1 games this season, Trent has taken just 72 shots from the field. For comparison, Alan Griffin has taken 66 - in less than half the number of minutes. More perspective - this offense uses Kipper Nichols more when he is on the floor. Imagine that.

Frazier is by far the team's best three point shooter, he's probably the best "bucket getter" on the team - and he's been forgotten on offense. I think it's worth noting that he was not involved in any of the six "end of clock" possessions we discussed earlier. For my money, if you want to fix the offense - it starts with Trent Frazier.


larue on December 25 @ 03:03 PM CST

Earlier today, before reading this, I was looking at Pomeroy's site and two things jumped out. Griffin has taken almost as many shots as Frazier, and Frazier has the second lowest shot rate on the team, ahead of only Damonte. Both those things are crazy, and I wasn't surprised to see Tyler making the same point.

And the fact that Frazier took 5 shots against Missouri seems to show that Underwood isn't pushing for that to change, or Frazier is the only basketball player in history resistant to the idea of shooting more.

ktal on December 25 @ 06:33 PM CST

Great break down to what ails the Illini. And Tyler's conclusion nicely connects the description of the problem with Robert's intro of Trent: The problem is the offense + Trent can be a scoring machine = Run it through Trent.

Groundhogday on December 25 @ 08:18 PM CST

FWIW Trent Meacham has said something similar about Frazier on Werner’s show. This isn’t rocket science. Truly baffling the coaches are making any effort to get their best shooter/scorer the ball in a position to shoot/score.

And it doesn’t take a genius to see the Giorgi-at-the-4 experiment isn’t working.

Giovantischixstripz on December 25 @ 09:24 PM CST

I disagree with the Giorgi at the 4 point. He gets some time staggered with Kofi to eat in the post still. Many of those turnovers he has, are in those possessions he has as a 5 when he posts up. He travels and commits a lot of offensive fouls in post up situations.

He has developed some very good chemistry in high lows with Kofi. Despite the turnovers, no one on the team gets the ball to Kofi in better positions than Giorgi. When we are playing teams that go small at 4, BU should work on posting Giorgi up more in those situations as the other teams best post defender will be stuck on Kofi (who would be situated at the opposite elbow in this case)

Groundhogday on December 26 @ 01:01 PM CST

Yes, Giorgi is makes terrific entry passes. But that is just one aspect of playing the 4. Overall, this isn't working. Giorgi is clearly not comfortable in this role. Not only do his personal stats reflect this, but the team offense struggles.

Giovantischixstripz on December 26 @ 03:58 PM CST

He has to get comfortable, otherwise he is only going to play about 15 minutes per game. Of his personal stats, the only one that is troubling is the turnovers. And as I pointed out, he is getting them at 4 and 5, I'd argue perhaps even more when he is at 5. The lower ppg is really just lower usage, his fg% is better, and that is even with taking more shots further from the hoop. Lower usage was to be expected this year with Kofi coming in.

I agree that they should try to post him up early to get him going, but I think he is more dangerous doing that as a 4 with Kofi at 5 because

A) it is against a weaker defender and B) if a double comes he has Kofi lurking on the weakside, Giorgi has the vision to make that read.

I believe the overall offensive struggles are much more related to turnovers from being too mechanical with the offensive rotations, and the enormous regression from Trent.

HiggsBoson on December 26 @ 08:23 PM CST

Although I think Giorgi loves C-U, it wouldn't surprise me to see him transfer and blossom into a star somewhere else.

Giovantischixstripz on December 25 @ 09:29 PM CST

Great analysis. BU is not getting this team to perform up to its talent level offensively, and it is baffling because he isn't an idiot. A bad offensive coach would not be able to run the best offense in the country like he did at OK St.

In the short term to get Trent going, I think BU should consider bringing him off the bench. Stagger his minutes as much as possible with Ayo so Trent gets more time running the show with the ball in his hands. Maybe get the chance to go against a weaker bench defender as well. Starting line up of Ayo, Andres, Griffin, Giorgi and Kofi. Then, if he finds his mojo again, insert him back into the starting line up (but still make the rotations so he is always running the show when Ayo is resting)

Eagle on December 25 @ 11:26 PM CST

Watch Giorgi's moves this year and compare them to last year. Lately, they are a lot slower. Each second of his possession is very predictable: hold the ball, hold the ball, dribble, dribble, shoot. Too predictable and takes way too long to happen. Too easy to defend. He never should have been allowed to develop this habit. Kofi, on the other hand, typically gets his ball after good ball movement and he makes a quicker move.

ATOillini on December 26 @ 07:25 AM CST

I totally agree with this comment. I find myself getting angry when he’s down low with his butt to the basket. Those situations are ineffective in general and painful to watch as he’s pounding the ball into the floor.

Also, if someone cannot score, then he better be a lock down defender on the opposition’s best player or a rebounding machine. These opposing coaches are not stupid. It gives their defenses a significant advantage to hedge towards other players. A foot here and a fraction of second there makes a big difference.

Finally, Robert’s assessment of some of our players seems elevated relative to what I see. We still lack athleticism....other than Kofi will be an absolute force if he stays a few more years For a guy that big and with a limited history playing the sport I’m amazed at how good he already is. Huge potential.

Groundhogday on December 26 @ 02:25 PM CST

Giorgi doesn't get many good post up opportunities relative to last year, so he looks rushed when the opportunities do arise. I agree with Meacham that the cure to Giorgi's problem is running some offense to get Giorgi in position to score down low early in the game, get him comfortable, then consistently look to post him up. The more he plays on the perimeter, the less comfortable he looks overall.

orangejulius on December 26 @ 04:38 PM CST

"Ayo has the potential to be a first-round pick."

And, he is currently projected as undrafted on . On Nov. 1st the prediction was #32.

Groundhogday on December 26 @ 05:25 PM CST

Biggest fear: Ayo isn’t a team player this year with one eye on the NBA. But he isn’t good enough to make it, returns for another season, and consequently we lose Miller. Fingers crossed coach can manage this situation.

HiggsBoson on December 26 @ 08:24 PM CST

That is pretty much my expectation.

Groundhogday on December 26 @ 05:25 PM CST

Biggest fear: Ayo isn’t a team player this year with one eye on the NBA. But he isn’t good enough to make it, returns for another season, and consequently we lose Miller. Fingers crossed coach can manage this situation.

HiggsBoson on December 26 @ 08:32 PM CST

If all five players are not performing to expectations, then you should look to the coaches. We have some good players, but rarely play as an effective team. Again look at the coaches. Underwood's remarks after Mizzou were basically loser speak. Coaches again.

Ayo seems to have killed off Trent's game, and Kofi has done the same for Giorgi. Underwood doesn't seem interested in addressing that.

At this point, barring a miraculous gelling, this looks like an NIT team. Bubble NIT if they play a little worse, bubble Dance if they play better.

1970 John on December 26 @ 10:01 PM CST

So why IS our three-point shooting so abysmal? It’s not like these guys have never done it before, and we certainly shot better last year.

And why missing all those bunny layups against Mizzou? Layups aren’t a new thing with any of them.

How many of either would it have taken to turn those L’s into W’s? Despite everything else, just a couple “should have made” shots made would be wins. It just doesn’t make sense.

orangejulius on December 27 @ 05:57 PM CST

Aaron Jordan ran out of eligibility and we replaced him w/ hot air.

Groundhogday on December 29 @ 07:10 PM CST

We could/should have replaced Jordan with Griffin. But Griffin hasn't developed defensively as fast as hoped, hence he isn't getting all of Jordan's minutes.

The Olaf Rules on December 27 @ 01:15 AM CST

I have not looked for the data on this, but it sure seems to me anecdotally that other than in transition, the ball rarely gets to Trent for a shot opportunity. Ayo and Feliz look to dribble penetrate then shoot or dish to a big; and when the ball gets to a big on the block, it rarely comes back out. This has got to be by design and/or emphasis of the coaching staff.

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