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I'm doing my best to not get too far ahead of myself here. I came into this season with high expectations, but I'll admit that these first two games already have me dreaming in full technicolor.
Yes, of course, I need to tap the breaks because competition level matters. I mean, we beat Arkansas State by 39 points tonight - while shooting just 20% from three and 61% from the free throw line. How does that happen? You certainly aren't going to draw any grand conclusions from games against teams ranked #280 and #191 in KenPom, but I think you can certainly learn a few things.
For starters, we learned how important Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier are going to be to this team. Both returned to the lineup tonight after sitting out the season opener against Jackson State due to injury, and each made their presence immediately felt - Curbelo on offense and Frazier on defense. Curbelo opened the game with two of what at this point can only be described as "Curbelo-esque" passes (yes he is worthy of his own adjective) for dunks that accounted for the first two Illinois baskets of the game. He would finish with 8 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, and one technical foul - which we'll talk about in a bit.
Frazier - with his right shoulder wrapped snugly in a harness - took immediately to making life miserable for Arkansas State guard Desi Stills - a transfer who was part of the regular rotation for an Arkansas Razorback team that went to the Elite 8 last March. Stills would finish the night 3 of 13 from the floor. As Brad Underwood said in the post game press conference - Trent Frazier will "steal your soul" on defense.
I think we also learned that the Illinois defense has the potential to be frighteningly good. The size and length that have been added to the rotation naturally allow the Illini defense to be more aggressive in the passing lanes and when defending ball screens compared to the last two seasons. The defensive turnover percentage (27%) in these first two games is more in line with what we saw in Underwood's first three seasons than in the previous two. For example, on the very first Arkansas State possession, Coleman Hawkins - who got the start tonight over DMW - jumped a ball screen at the top of the floor and forced a turnover. The Red Wolves would finish the game with 19 giveaways.
That said, this was not the frantic pressure that far too often led to late shot clock breakdowns in those seasons past. This was just the Illini size and length imposing its will. Jackson State managed just 0.73 PPP on Tuesday while tonight Arkansas State struggled to a paltry 0.70 PPP. Viewed through more traditional numbers, the two opponents combined to score just 100 points total over the two games. And this is without Kofi Cockburn! Early KenPom numbers are kind of silly, but let the record show that Illinois is currently #1 in KenPom defensive efficiency after two games.
My other big takeaway from these first two games is how big of a factor rebounding figures to be for this team - both offensively and defensively. And I only partly say that because of the impish grin that spreads across Brad Underwood's face whenever he talks about rebounding. Seriously - he's like the Grinch when you ask him about rebounding.
All that size and length we just talked about on defense? Ditto for rebounding. Plus add in Andre Curbelo who is an excellent rebounder from his position. Through the first two games we are rebounding half of our misses on offense while grabbing almost 80% of our opponents' missed shots. That's a winning combination.
Tonight we had 25 second chance points - over 25% of our scoring. It's pretty simple - offensive rebounds allow us to win the shot volume game. Underwood wants that - nay - he NEEDS that. More shots equates to a more efficient offense, and offensive rebounds also have a negative effect on the opposing team's subsequent possession. That's your basic win-win right there. Defensvely the opposite applies of course, but a defensive rebound also represents an opportunity to get out on the break - which promises to be a big part of our offense as well.
So now it's Marquette in Milwaukee on Monday for a step up in competition and a chance to see just how much we really have learned.
The Orange Krush broke Arkansas State head coach Mike Balado. They were on him early and often with a relentless "EFF YOU MIKE!" chant. Then, near the end of the game he fired back with a challenge asking any of the Krush to repeat said chant to his face. To my knowledge, no Krush members took him up on it. Balado then declined all post-game interviews.
Andre Curbelo was hit with a technical foul in the first half after he blew a kiss to the Arkansas State bench as he ran by after making a layup. This one was a long time coming. Early in the first half, one of the Arkansas State assistants was emphatically telling his team to play Curbelo to pass because he wasn't a threat to score. I mean he was YELLING it and wanting Curbelo to hear him. Underwood and Curbelo shared a funny moment as they looked at each other and just shrugged. It was less funny after each picked up technicals a few minutes later, but after the game Underwood made a point to say he needed to "stand up for his guy." As for Curbelo's postgame message to the Arkansas State coaching staff? "Don't poke the bear."
Coleman Hawkins was doing some things out there. 17 points/12 rebounds/4 assists/4 blocks and ALL the energy. Also, according to Underwood, Hawkins was solely responsible for drawing 10 fouls against him. He missed six free throws so it wasn't a perfect night, but man was he playing some ball out there. I need to see it against high D1 competition, but if he continues to bring that kind of game night in and night out, then I might need to recalibrate my already sky expectations for this team.