End Of The Season Mailbag I
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Maybe this will help me process the whole thing. My request was for mailbag questions which did not include the question "what went wrong on Sunday?" because that's probably not a question I'll ever want to answer. But there's still a lot of processing going on (at least in my head), so let's get to it.
First question comes from someone on the Slack:
What is our ceiling next year if Giorgi is our starting center?
I guess I'll answer this way: I'm way higher on Giorgi as our starting center than many 70% of you. Probably 90%. Not just because Underwood chose to keep Kofi on the bench and play Giorgi in the final four minutes of the BTT final. He had some great moments this spring. No, he's not the rebounder (nor the shot blocker) that Kofi became. But he's a fourth-year big man who knows this offense and could have a senior season much like we just saw from Trent or Da'Monte.
I do not think Kofi returns, so I'm already all-in on Giorgi as the starting big man. I guess I should probably expand on "I do not think Kofi returns".
My main reason I do not think Kofi returns: his age. Kofi turns 22 on September 1st. I just feel like a 22 year-old is ready to get his professional career underway. Yes, if he came back, he'd be a preseason first-team All American. And yes, he could possibly increase his chances of being drafted like Ayo just did. But Ayo had to prove some things on offense, and he did, and that's why I think he moved himself into the first round. I don't think Kofi can do the same.
It's like this: when Kofi is asked who he models his game after, he always says Joel Embiid. Rebounding-wise and dunk-wise, yes, but Embiid shot 172 threes last year during the NBA season. Kofi would need to prove he could do that, and I don't think he can. That's fine, and he can still have a professional career (either here or overseas), but he's just not that player so I don't think he has anything to prove by coming back. He'd come back, dominate in the paint, not shoot any threes, and be in the same boat this time next year. Maybe only free throw percentage would improve.
So I assume he's gone. And I assume Giorgi is the starting big. And I don't hate it. I think Giorgi can have a really big senior year. Offseason focus for Giorgi: rebounding. Needs to be an animal on the boards next year.
From the games on the road what’s the one you think Illinois would have had a tougher time winning if students/full capacity were allowed? Can limit to one’s you attended— Brian Connor (@b_sands5) March 25, 2021
I've thought about this a lot this season. If Nebraska has fans in attendance, do they give that little extra boost to Nebraska's confidence and does that mean Nebraska wins instead of Illinois winning in overtime? Same with Indiana. A crowd means Indiana wins that game, especially since Ayo fouled out, right?
Probably. Maybe. Also might mean we beat Maryland. Of course, I've told people that if Braggin' Rights was neutral instead of in Columbia we'd win so did playing at Missouri really hurt us?
But that's not answering the question. Let me back all the way up and answer a different way.
This might sound weird, but I feel like the biggest difference between fan-less basketball and normal, arena-filled-to-capacity basketball is the game being over early. It's not exactly "there's no comebacks", but there just seemed to be something to teams being unable to get back in a game (much like Sunday). Perhaps its better put this way: so many situations this season where one team was playing at a 10 and the other team was a 1.
This wasn't directly tied to the lack of fans, because it happened both at home and on the road, but I feel like we saw more "what was THAT?" games than usual. Let me just make a quick list:
- First game that comes to mind was the Minnesota game at Minnesota. I've never seen body language like that. At the under-12:00 timeout, Minnesota quit. Like, QUIT quit. Maybe there was something going on in the locker room or something, but they didn't want to play basketball. Total and complete Illini domination.
- The Duke win was this long "holy crap Duke isn't even going to make a second half run here, are they?". We maintained a 10+ point lead the entire way.
- After Baylor made the second half run in Indy, we were kind of out of it. Just seemed like it was competitive for 25 minutes and then the game was OVER over.
- The game at Michigan was probably the craziest (and became the second-largest home loss by a top-5 team ever). From the jump, one team had it and one team didn't.
- Hey, speaking of one team had it and one team didn't... Sunday vs. Loyola (even though there were several thousand fans in the arena).
That doesn't answer your question, but my feeling on "fan-less arenas" is probably best summed up like that. I saw more "one team absolutely has it and one team does not" this year (second half at Northwestern was as good as we could play; first half at Nebraska was as bad as we could play) than any year I can remember. This whole pandemic/testing/player isolation/no fans thing had to be a big part of that. It just had to.
What’s the reason for the Big Ten’s struggles in the tourney?— L E E (@leesteffen) March 25, 2021
Well, part of it, I think is the stuff I just wrote. For whatever reason this was an "on days and off days" season, and the Big Ten had a bunch of Tournament off-days (while the Pac-12 was "on").
But beyond that, I do think the Big Ten was overrated. This will be one of those answers where I talk around advanced statistics while not addressing advanced statistics but try to stay with me.
As I've come around to certain advanced stats over the years, I've begun to appreciate their ability to identify teams with a lot of losses that still met the eye test. We'd beat Purdue or whoever, and they'd be unranked and 10-6, and I'd say "man, that team was really tough", and then I'd see that Purdue was 14th in KenPom or whatever and the NERDstat would match the eye test.
This year, I really struggled with that. Wisconsin was ranked until the final week of the season, and Wisconsin stayed highly ranked on KenPom and T-Rank and such, and a win over Wisconsin still meant a lot for the computers and even the power rankings... but Wisconsin was never good.
They lost to a bad Marquette team in December (a "Wojo fired" Marquette team), they went 10-10 in the Big Ten, finishing on a 3-6 run with the three wins being Penn State, Nebraska, and Northwestern, and they then beat Penn State by one in the BTT before losing to Iowa. Their 10 Big Ten wins? Nebraska twice, Northwestern twice, Michigan State, Minnesota, Rutgers, Indiana, Maryland, Penn State.
Let me put that a different way. They finished 6th in the Big Ten at 10-10. Their 10 wins were against the teams that finished 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th (twice) and 14th (twice). The went 0-fer against the top five teams (and lost some games against the teams below them). Their only decent win of the entire season (and this is going to hurt): Loyola-Chicago in Madison back in December.
When I see something like that, and then I see strength of schedule cited as the reason they're still 27th in NET (and higher on most of the "analytics rankings" the committee acknowledges), I feel like something is off. My brain says "it's the lack of a deep non-conference data set that allowed us to think that the Big Ten was strong when really Wisconsin was maybe the 60th-best team in the country", assuming that a full non-con would have given us more "you know, a lot of Big Ten teams lost to MAC teams" or whatever. Perhaps that would have helped us assign the Big Ten better "strength" rating and then Wisconsin is just a regular old 17-12 basketball team and not "well they had to play in the murderous Big Ten so obviously anyone would lose 12 games".
I know what the advanced stats say. I know about the offensive and defensive efficiency stats and how that plays into KenPom ranking Ohio State or Iowa so high. But since Strength Of Schedule is involved in all of that, I just have to think the SOS assumptions were way off. As in, there wasn't enough data so assumptions were applied from the previous season (some even use recruiting rankings as part of the formula and project stats for certain players) and the Big Ten was supposed to be a monster but maybe it just wasn't. Good, not great.
Which is maybe a little helpful? At least for now. Right now, in a weird way, it makes me feel a little better that it probably wasn't "Illinois beat #23, #2, and #7, all on the road, and then beat #5 and #9 in the Big Ten Tournament". That's what led to my total disbelief at losing to Loyola. Maybe it was more "Illinois beat a bad Wisconsin team, #11 Michigan, and #24 Ohio State and then beat #19 Iowa and RV Ohio State again in the BTT". I thought we were slaying giants but we were really just slaying good, not great teams.
Which doesn't change my view of this season. I still believe we were the best team in the Big Ten and the BTT proved it. I'll still cherish my memories of the Big Ten Tournament in Indy. We simply got a bad matchup for us in the second round and got thumped.
Maybe that's just me trying to play tricks on my emotions. Maybe I'm stretching in order to find solace in "perhaps we were just the #8 team going into the Tournament, not #2, and #8 teams sometimes do lose before they get to the second weekend". Lowering the profile of my team in order to feel better about my team's shocking exit. I know my mind is capable of that.
But I do think we know that the Big Ten was not as advertised. In the final week of the regular season Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State were ranked 4th, 5th, and 7th in the country. All were seeded among the top 8 teams. And all three teams lost before the Sweet 16. That's probably enough to say "yeah, the SOS numbers were way off". Add in the fact that only one Big Ten team made the S16 and we've moved beyond "it's basketball and random upsets happen". The B1G was simply not what we thought it was.
Wait - did I answer the question? "What's the reason for the Big Ten's struggles in the Tourney?". I don't think it's "bad brand of basketball" or "the officiating during the season sets Big Ten teams up for failure in the Tournament". I think it's probably as simple as "with twice the non-conference games, we would have learned that the Big Ten was good, not great".