Whatever...and What Next?
Losing the Bragging Rights game is awful on so many levels. Eight days - and another game later - but I'm still bitter. One of those levels is that it's basically the only game over a two week period, and if you lose the only thing you have to wash the taste out of your mouth is the annual pre-conference tuneup game against a directional or ampersand school. Hardly satisfying. At least we didn't FAU it like last year. 95-64 Illinois over North Carolina A&T. Fantastic. Whatever.
Instead of enjoying this post-Christmas digestif in advance of tomorrow's Redbox Bowl and ahead of conference play, I'm still left to fume over the Mizzou loss, lament our thoroughly underwhelming non-conference record, and sulk about what could have been.
There just isn't much to take away from a game like this - as entertaining (9 dunks!) as it was. Don't get me wrong - Illinois played very well today. 56% shooting from the floor - including 43% from the arc. 22 assists on 36 made baskets. Only 9 turnovers. It's just that after going just 1-4 against high major competition, forgive me if another blowout against a cupcake feels like so many empty calories.
As such, I'm not going to dive deep into this game as the details just don't mean much. I'd rather take a look ahead to try to figure out what Illinois needs to do to make up the ground lost in the non-conference and still find a way into the NCAA Tournament.
Let's start with the fundamental question: How many more wins will it take to secure a tourney berth? I'm far from a bracketologist, but please humor my research here.
Before today's game, Illinois sat at #50 in the NCAA "NET" rankings and #47 in KenPom. It's just the second iteration of this season's NET, and it's still a little early to put full stock in KenPom, but based on the same two ranking systems from one year ago, they are starting to round into form - especially for Big Ten teams.
For some perspective, the #50 team in NET one year ago today was Seton Hall - who made the tournament and avoided a play-in game. Also, the #46 (Minnesota), #48 (Washington), #50 (Ole Miss), and #60 (Seton Hall) teams in KenPom at the end of the season all made the tournament as at large teams and also avoided a play-in game.
Brad Underwood did some early politicking after today's game, calling the Big Ten "a ten bid league", and the thing is, he may not be exaggerating. The conference has been that good through the first two months.
Fortunately for Illinois, conference play still offers myriad opportunities to rack up quality wins in Quadrant 1 and 2 games - which on the surface seems to be the most important metric to the selection committee. As of today, 12 Big Ten teams are in the NET top 50 and the KenPom top 52. Only Northwestern and Nebraska have fallen out of the top 100 in both lists. What that means is that of the 18 regular season games remaining for Illinois, 15 of them are likely to be in the Q1 or Q2 category, and there are only 3 more opportunities for a "bad loss" (the 2 games vs Northwestern and 1 vs Nebraska).
Iowa, Ohio State, and Minnesota were the "worst" of the Big Ten teams to make the tournament last year. Here were their season ending NET rankings and records in Q1/Q2 games:
Iowa (10 seed): #43 in the NET; 11-10 in Q1/Q2 games
Minnesota (10 seed): #61 in the NET; 12-12 in Q1/Q2 games
Ohio State (11 seed): #55 in the NET; 9-13 record in Q1/Q2 games
It feels to me like ten Q1/Q2 wins is the magic number. We have just the one against Michigan thus far. That would mean 9-6 in the fifteen conference games apart from Northwestern and Nebraska (or 8-7 in those games plus at least one more in the BTT). Only seven of the fifteen are at home, so while this is not an easy pathway, it sure feels to me like this team has another gear left to hit.
Which begs another question: What needs to happen on the court over the next two months for this team to find that gear?
+Stay the course on defense. The retooled scheme has been a success overall and while it's not a dominant defense, it's been more than good enough to keep this team in games even when the offense has struggled to find a rhythm.
+This team has to shoot better from the arc. We are shooting just over 30% from three on the season - but only 24% in the five high major games. I find it hard to imagine finding those nine wins I mentioned without better outside shooting to soften up defenses and create space for Kofi and Giorgi to maneuver in the paint.
+Non-conference Kofi needs to carry over into conference Kofi. He was certainly great against Michigan and Maryland (28 pts/18 rebounds), so that bodes well.
+2019 Giorgi Bezhanishvili needs to return. Giorgi played out of control against Mizzou and he over corrected today with a very tentative performance. He proved his mettle in conference play last year so there is plenty of precedent to believe he can find his way back.
+As Robert and I discussed in our post Mizzou Back and Forth - this team needs more from Trent Frazier. He doesn't have to be 25% usage Trent from his freshman year, but Trent at just 14% usage is severely handicapping the full potential of this offense.
+Alan Griffin needs to prove that he can bring it when the lights are shining. He is averaging 11 and 4 against low and mid major teams - shooting 57% from the floor and 47% from the arc. However, in the five high major games those numbers drop to just 4 and 3 while shooting just 30% from the floor and 17% from deep.
+Ayo Dosunmu needs to consistently get to his second (and third) gear. We all know how much better he is when he plays downhill, and now it's on him and the coaching staff to find ways to get him in the open court in league play. That might be the biggest challenge of all in the grinder that is the Big Ten, but if we can keep rebounding the ball like we have through the first 12 games, opportunities will be there.
The bell rings this Thursday night in East Lansing. I'm anxiously awaiting to see if this team can answer it.