So I had it all figured out back in November. An Illini team returning over 80% of its minutes from last season and adding one of the best freshman big men in program history would be primed to take the next step forward - taking an offense that was decent but inconsistent last season and turning it into one of the better units in the Big Ten. The improved offense was going to be the catalyst to propel the Illini to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2014.
The only question - would the Illinois defense continue to negatively skew the equation by giving back far too many layups, open three point looks, and free throws?
Fast forward to January 5, and through the first four Big Ten games, the Illini have one of the worst offenses in the conference, but have been the most efficient defensive team - by a wide margin. Because, of course.
Behind the revamped and suddenly stifling defense, Illinois romped to a 63-37 win over Purdue tonight at the SFC. Purdue entered the game suffering from a split personality disorder - owning one of the most severe home/road splits you'll ever see. The Boilers had shot 48% from the floor in running up a 7-1 record at home, but had lost 4 of 6 away from Mackey - while shooting at just a 36% clip.
Make that 5 of 7. In fact, this one ended as a historically bad offensive performance for the Boilers. Their 37 points was the lowest scoring output since 1948, and their 25% shooting for the game was the worst in program history. That's saying something for a program with over 120 seasons on its ledger. (It's really hard to imagine typing these words from where Illinois was a year ago.)
The improbable identity change of this Illini team remains fascinating. It's a team that entirely retooled its offensive and defensive schemes in large part to accommodate Kofi Cockburn. This may well explain the lack of offensive improvement typically seen from teams with the degree of continuity Illinois (9th in the country) maintained from last season. On the other hand, the improvements on the defensive end have been nothing short of remarkable. Maybe it's just easier to start from scratch on that end of the floor.
Despite their shooting woes in conference play thus far, there are signs that Illinois might be ready to turn a corner offensively - primarily the continued emergence of Alan Griffin (My Guy!) and the reemergence of Trent Frazier. While I'm not ready to proclaim the season long three point shooting drought over after tonight's 37% performance, I do believe a "positive" regression to the mean is coming for this team. And really - that's all they need. If this defense is for real - and it has been against four solid Big Ten opponents - then it can win games with just replacement level perimeter shooting.
After this rout, the Illini now sit at 2-2 in the conference, and jumped all the way to #33 in KenPom - again underscoring how much stock the computer rankings have in the Big Ten. The loss Thursday in East Lansing was especially frustrating because of the dismal three point shooting, but in the big picture it didn't really damage the NCAA Tournament prospects whatsoever. Because of the conference strength, Illinois is still going to find itself in pretty good shape IF they continue to hold serve at home. Unfortunately, the non-conference struggles have sliced the error margin to a dangerously thin level, and as such they can ill afford any slip ups at home - at least until they collect a road win against a conference team not named Northwestern. They'll get that next chance Wednesday in Madison.
+Alan Griffin is a secret weapon no more. Matt Painter indicated that Griffin was featured prominently on their pregame scouting report, and then called him "the best player on the floor" after the game. I happen to agree. His knack for offensive rebounding is borderline preternatural. There have been calls for him to start, but I think the energy and offensive firepower he brings to the floor make him a perfect "sixth man". As long as he is getting starter type minutes (25-ish) then I'm good.
+Griffin may have been the best player on the floor tonight, but Trent Frazier wasn't far behind. We've seen Frazier become the defensive stopper among the guard rotation, and that was fully apparent tonight as he gave no quarter to Purdue sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic. However, we also saw the return of the aggressive shot-hunting Frazier on offense. He led the team in field goal attempts tonight - putting up double digit shots for only the second time this season. Underwood admitted after the game that getting Frazier more involved on offense was a point of emphasis and from this chair - that's a positive development.
+Underwood still has a Kofi/Giorgi problem. He kind of had to roll with both tonight as Purdue presented the unique challenge of their own twin towers, but the offense continues to bog down with Giorgi at the top of the floor. While he did knock down a three tonight, teams still aren't respecting him out there. It makes for nearly impossible post entry angles and it also mucks up the lane. Purdue was able to allow Matt Haarms to camp down there and deter just about everything going to the rim. Ayo was just 3-11 from the floor tonight - and that was a big reason why.
+Painter said afterwards that he could "give a tutorial" on how to manage two big guys who each demand heavy minutes. It was one of many thoughtful answers Painter gave throughout the post-game press conference. Despite getting his doors blown off tonight, Painter was engaging and forthcoming throughout the session. Really great stuff for a basketball junkie/wannabe journalist such as myself.