Back & Forth - Resurgence


Robert
Feb 14, 2019
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That title feels like this is a film series. "Did you guys see that Back & Forth - Resurgence comes out this summer? I didn't like the third one because I didn't feel like it held true to the original but I'm hopeful for this since Antoine Fuqua will be directing."

OK, so since we've won four of five (FOUR OF FIVE - WE ONLY WON FOUR OF THE FIRST SIXTEEN AND THAT WAS THE NON-CONFERENCE), I felt like it was time for Tyler and I to exchange some emails and try to figure this thing out. Starting with this email I sent him:


What a difference three weeks makes. We had four wins the last time we did one of these. And 12 losses, I believe. Now we're 9-15. According to math, that means we need to discuss a 5-3 record the last eight games. In the toughest conference in college basketball in 2019. What?

I mean, if I told you on January 25th that we were going to go 4-1 over the next five, you would have called me insane. Mostly because it would mean that we would have beaten either Maryland or Michigan State. And then we beat both of them. What?

So let's start there. Where the hell did this come from?

Well to answer your question truthfully - out of nowhere, of course. I sure didn't see it coming. You could explain away the Minnesota game as one of those nights every team - even bad ones - has where everything just clicks for a fleeting stretch. You thought, yeah, that was a fluke after a discouraging week that included the Iowa and Wisconsin losses. Then improbably, the Illini went to New York and turned around their season.

To me the best part about this four out of five stretch is just how variable it's been. Last year's equation for conference wins was pretty simple. If Leron Black or Trent Frazier went off then maybe we had a fighting chance.

By contrast, the wins in this recent stretch have followed a different script each time:
+ Maryland: Ayo was fantastic and the Illini got 37 points off the bench - including the Tevian Jones coming out party.
+ Nebraska: The best overall defensive effort of the season and we all bore witness to the resurrection of Kipper Nichols.
+ MSU: Build a big lead, give up the lead late, but instead of the predictable fold-up, we punch Sparty right back behind Ayo's heroics and come away with the biggest win for the program in six years.
+ Rutgers: The Giorgi B Show prevents what would have been a classic "hangover" loss.

When you start stacking wins, and getting them a different way each night, you start to believe a little bit again that maybe the plan - and this team - is finally coming together.

It sure seems a long way from December 29 when after the FAU loss I wondered here on this blog if there was a viable pathway to success for Brad Underwood. Then Kofi Cockburn, a blowout of Minnesota, and an undefeated February later - here we are believing in the future again. There's probably a cautionary tale to be told here, but for now let's just go with it.

I've gone back and forth this week (ha!) on whether I should get excited or stay cautious. I'd love to say that we've definitely turned a corner - citing everything you just stated - but if we lose four of the next five it will feel like we're right back where we started in November.

So I need to go back to where I was about 10 days ago when I wrote my "expectations" post. I ranked the remaining games from easiest to hardest and set what I thought was a lofty goal of finishing 5-4. Here were the nine games:

Rutgers (W)
Penn State
Northwestern
@Penn State
Indiana
@Ohio State
Michigan State (W)
@Wisconsin
@Purdue

So, really, win the final three home games (against the teams currently 10th, 12th, and 14th in the Big Ten) and I'm happy. Lofty goal met. But wouldn't it be great to win at least one of those road games? That would be a 6-3 finish and build some insane momentum for next year.

But that makes me cautious again. It would be crazy to hope for a 6-3 finish, right?

(Or maybe not that crazy?)

As I said - let's proceed with extreme caution. I don't want to go all windsock-y over these last seven games and the BTT. If we do happen to get one of those road wins it won't translate into us being ranked in the preseason come November, and if we should stumble at home to say, Penn State or Northwestern, it won't render this recent stretch meaningless either. Regardless of the next month I think this season has been successful in one key area - establishing knowns.

For example - we know that Trent Frazier's freshman season wasn't a fluke. We know that Ayo Dosunmu has lived up to every expectation and will eventually be Illinois' first NBA draft pick since Meyers Leonard seven (!!) years ago. We know that Giorgi B has blossomed into a legitimate Big Ten starter and will anchor our frontcourt for as long as he's in Champaign. We know that Andres Feliz provides rock solid depth in the backcourt, and I think we also kind of know what Da'Monte Williams and Kipper Nichols are by now.

All of these things will likely continue to be "knowns" next season - allowing of course for the possibility that Ayo enters the draft this summer. So now what I want to see over the next month is if we can make any progress on some of our current unknowns.

- Will this group become more consistently proficient with Brad Underwood's defensive scheme? Or put a different way - can this team show that the scheme is indeed viable in this league?
- Now that Giorgi has proven that he can carry the load - how will he and the offense adapt if teams start keying defensive game plans on taking him out of the mix?
- Will Tevian Jones show that can be "the guy" on the wing going into next season?
- Ditto Alan Griffin. Will he earn more trusted minutes and show that he belongs in any future backcourt rotation projection?

It's answers to questions such as these that will give me more insight into next season than a simple reckoning of our win-loss record over the next seven games.

I can answer those questions:

- Will this group become more consistently proficient with Brad Underwood's defensive scheme? Or put a different way - can this team show that the scheme is indeed viable in this league?

YES

- Now that Giorgi has proven that he can carry the load - how will he and the offense adapt if teams start keying defensive game plans on taking him out of the mix?

HE'LL TURN IT UP TO 11.

- Will Tevian Jones show that can be "the guy" on the wing going into next season?

YES.

- Ditto Alan Griffin. Will he earn more trusted minutes and show that he belongs in any future backcourt rotation projection?

YES.

You listing those things made me excited to write the basketball preview next October. Just like I'm excited to write the football preview this summer. Finally we're approaching seasons that really mean something.

If only half of the answers above are "yes", then that's still fairly exciting. Take the two knowns and add in two from below - let's go with Giorgi passing out of double-teams for open threes and Tevian Jones being the sharpshooter who takes advantage of that - then next year still looks legitimately solid.

And thinking about it, I probably want to see those last two come true more than any of the others. The freshman class has proven to be solid. Get another Maryland performance from Tevian Jones and get another Maui performance from Alan Griffin and I'll be even more excited.

But yeah, that first one has me a little concerned. I saw that our defense is now back below our offense on KenPom. Which, yay offense, but the defensive numbers are sagging. What needs to be cleaned up?

Yeah - so this is one of those conundrum things. In the nine games from the first Nebraska game in December to the loss at home to Michigan - our defense was statistically trending in the "right" direction. Our turnover rate was still excellent, but we were improving in other areas such as defensive efficiency and two point field goal percentage allowed.

Over those nine games we only allowed 48.8% on two point field goal attempts and just under 1.00 points per possession. Not exactly Virginia numbers, but perfectly respectable - especially with the rate at which we force turnovers. Isolating conference games only - the numbers creep up a bit, but still remain passable. But our record over those nine games? 2-7.

So now in the eight games since - all Big Ten games of course - the defensive numbers have noticeably worsened. We are allowing 55.6% on two point attempts and 1.09 points per possession over the stretch. The conundrum? Our record in these eight games is 5-3.

So what gives? Well for one, those shooting percentages are heavily skewed by the Iowa game. Remember the historical shooting performance that day by the Hawkeyes. Or actually - maybe just forget that one. Also, in our five wins the turnover rate has been exceptional at 25.6% - basically turning teams over one out of every four times they have the ball. That's crazy good. This is also skewed a bit by the MSU game - but represents exactly what the defense wants to accomplish. Turn teams over, speed up the game, and create more shot opportunities than your opponent.

Also as you noted - yay offense. In our wins, the offense has been very good - averaging 1.13 points per possession and turning the ball over ourselves at just a 16% rate in our wins. By contrast, the offense was kind of garbage in December. We still foul way too much - but so did Underwood's SFA and OSU teams so that seems like something you can work around.

So what does this all mean? I think it means you can afford to give up some lay-ups if you're offense is humming and you're winning the shot volume game by forcing turnovers and turning offensive rebounds into second chance opportunities.

But now envision a scenario where you get the best of all worlds - where you consistently hold teams in the 50-53% range on two point attempts, AND you continue to force turnovers at high rate (another likely "known" for next year), AND the offense is rolling at high efficiency. Our Maryland win is that template. Get to that level consistently - and now you're really looking at something.

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