Back & Forth - Non-Conference
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I don't know why Tyler and I haven't done a Back And Forth this season. Wait, maybe we have? I'm kinda thinking that maybe we did one back in early December? Maybe not. Doesn't matter. Let's just get to the emails we shared the last few days. Starting with this one I sent to Tyler...
I'm not sure I've ever been more conflicted about a season after the non-conference portion is complete. I've convinced myself of the following over the last six weeks:
1. We have a really good chance to get to the Final Four.
2. We might not make the Tournament.
If this season was an EKG, that's the high point and the low point for me, but there have been so many squiggles in-between. I should just make a list.
- After Jackson State and Arkansas State: "Once we get Kofi back, this is a top-5 team."
- After Marquette: "Our problems are so much deeper than just 'Kofi was suspended for three games'."
- After the Kansas City tournament plus UTRGV: "We might not make the Tournament."
- After Notre Dame & Rutgers: "OK so once we survive all these injuries and flu bugs we're gonna be really good."
- After Iowa and the first 15 minutes of the Arizona game right after the Trent pointsplosion: "This is a Final Four team."
- The final 25 minutes of the Arizona game: "Yeah, we can't get there without Belo."
- Saint Francis + Missouri: "Definitely a top-25 team. Should be a protected seed. Still can't figure out the ceiling."
That's where I sit, looking for the ceiling. So now I turn to you...
Can you see the ceiling?
Honestly? No. Because actually I can see three ceilings.
Ceiling #1: Andre Curbelo doesn't come back in any real capacity by season's end.
Ceiling #2: Curbelo comes back and plays like March 2021 Belo.
Ceiling #3: Curbelo comes back and plays like November 2021 Belo.
We'll start with #1. This team as presently constructed is firing on all cylinders right now - especially on offense. We are far enough along this season for the computer rankings to have mostly separated wheat from chaff, and just as I put my faith in the numbers despite the angst which followed back to back losses to Maryland and OSU last season, I do the same for this team. Per KenPom's efficiency ratings, we are a respectable #37 on defense and a flashy #9 on offense. If nothing else, we are also easy on the eyes - I can't remember a better shooting Illini team and Kofi dunking everything is always mega-fun.
We can beat teams inside (Kofi plus a 41.6% offensive rebounding rate) and outside (39.7% from three and a 54.5% effective FG% - good for 8th and 10th in college basketball respectively). Over the past few weeks we've been doing both which is why we are scoring almost 90 points a game since we left Kansas City. On the downside, we still turn the ball over too much, struggle defending against dribble penetration, and of course you wonder what happens on a given night in which the threes don't go down. Kofi will be a constant, but it's the three ball which really makes this team go nuclear. I think even without Curbelo, this squad has an Elite 8 type ceiling.
Number 2 is the Perfect Storm. If Curbelo returns and rounds back into the player he was down the stretch last season, then you've added a first team All Big Ten caliber variable to an already dynamic equation. The one thing the offense is lacking is someone who can break a team down off the dribble and get into the lane to do damage. If you add that wrinkle to Kofi and the Bombers, then you have a team that becomes darn near impossible to defend. Yes, the same defensive questions would persist and a team with athleticism and length on the perimeter (see: Arizona) would give us problems, but the elevator to this ceiling would, I think go all the way to the top. This team would again be in the discussion as a potential National Championship contender.
That said, Curbelo was a long way from that player to start this season - which brings us to ceiling #3. In those early games teams were dropping in ball screen coverage and going under ball screens against Curbelo, and his decision making in response was problematic to say the least. One hopes that his injury issues were a large part of his struggles as opposed to teams simply figuring him out. Either way, if the Curbelo we saw against Marquette and Cincinnati returns to this team, that dynamic equation could easily combust into a failed chemistry experiment. I doubt Brad Underwood would allow things to deteriorate to that degree again, but the ceiling in this scenario would likely be no higher than a team on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but with no great prospects beyond that.
Yeah, I'm already afraid of the first "Illini have gone 4:36 without a field goal" stretch in Curbelo's first game back. Regardless of the reason, The Illini Are Better Without Curbelo Twitter will be absolutely unbearable. It's going to take some time to get him back in the mix, and absolutely no one (besides Brad Underwood) will have enough patience to wait for that to happen. I think it's going to reach 95% finally giving up and saying "Illini Are Better Without Curbelo Twitter was right all along" before it finally starts to click.
But I read your email last night and then again just now and in that time I think I settled on one thing: this is a 6-man team right now with spot minutes from Payne, BBV, and the freshmen. Simply going from a 6-man team to a 7-man team is going to do a lot. And if we can get to 8 or 9 by March 1, then I think we're really getting somewhere. I'm not specifically focused on Belo today, for whatever reason. I'm focused on finding a full rotation.
We know the main six - Trent, Monte, Plumm3r, Slim Jake, ColeHawk, and Kofi. Once Belo returns we know our main seven which will really help with late-game legs (and foul trouble). So then we need to find a big (Payne or BBV) and a freshman wing.
For the extra big, so far this season, Payne has 97 minutes and BBV has 95. I expect one of them to emerge over the other as we get into conference season, but maybe they both split those minutes.
For the freshman, minutes so far look like this: Goode 105 minutes, Melendez 75 minutes, Podziemski 41. And it's worth noting that in the Missouri game, Podziemski got the most minutes (and not just mop-up minutes either). So this one remains completely undecided. With his offensive bursts, I've thought that it's going to be Melendez, but then he'll get yanked out of a game after a defensive lapse. Goode seemed like the guy back in November, but after the back spasm issue, he hasn't looked the same.
So that's what I'm pondering as we approach the Minnesota game. With Hutcherson out for the season, here's the HEAVY minutes for the top six and then the five players I just mentioned:
Frazier - 32.0 mpg
Cockburn - 30.4 mpg
Williams - 28.4 mpg
Plummer - 28.4 mpg
Grandison - 24.1 mpg
Hawkins - 22.3 mpg
Goode - 10.5 mpg
BBV - 8.3 mpg
Melendez - 8.1 mpg
Payne - 8.1 mpg
Podziemski - 5.1 mpg
Get Curbelo back and then work in two of those five. If I'm honest, I'm leaning BBV and Melendez. You?
Yeah I thought I had a pretty good handle on the current Belo-less rotation, but then as you mentioned, the SURPRISE PODZ! happened with him being the first freshman off the bench in both the St. Francis and MIZNOZ games - and averaging double digit minutes over those two games.
That said, assuming Belo's return, I still don't think we'll see Underwood work in two of the remaining five. He's pretty consistently been an 8 man rotation guy in each of his five seasons here, so I think you're looking at the "Heavy 6", Curbelo, and then either BBV or Payne to back up Kofi.
I just don't yet get the sense that Underwood is fully committed to any of the freshmen. I see your numbers, but I would counter with a deeper dive into the freshmen minutes in what I would call the "full strength and competitive" games so far this year: Marquette, Cincinnati, Kansas State, Iowa, and Arizona. (Yeah I know Kofi didn't play against Marquette, but his minutes don't really affect any of the freshmen).
Here are the freshmen minutes in each of those five games:
In MPG terms that is 4.6 mpg for Goode, 1.6 mpg for RJ, and 0.6 mpg for Podz.
Barring injury or deep foul trouble, I think it's more likely we see this type of minute distribution for the freshman.
I'm not seeing these three on the floor when it's nut crunching time at Mackey or Breslin. Of the three, though,I still see Luke Goode as the most likely guy to see a few spot minutes. He's earned the most trust from Underwood - especially on defense - and as such I think he might still be in line for 6-8 minutes per night while we see RJ and Podz minimized a bit.
Which leaves BBV and Payne. These two are still going to share time spelling Kofi. Underwood has settled into a pattern of resting Kofi going into media timeouts and matchups will determine who of the two will see the floor on a given night. If Underwood wants athleticism and rim protection, it will be Payne. If he needs some beef and rebounding, it will be BBV.
To switch gears a little bit - during the Mizzou game I found myself thinking this is the best Illini shooting team I can ever remember. After that little Trent explosion to start the second half, I literally said as much out loud to, well, to my dog who was the only soul in the room with me.
What say you?
The obvious first thought is 2005. Deron, Dee, and Luther took 698 threes (!!!) and made 283 of them. 40.5% for the Big Three and 39.2% for the entire team. That's nearly exactly the same as this team's current 39.7%.
And then of course I always bring up 1987 when this topic comes up (I mean, what Illini basketball topic DOESN'T make me say "well, back in 1987..."). Totally different sport back then, and Lou only let two of his players shoot threes (Doug Altenberger and Tony Wysinger). But as a team they shot 46.1% from three because Altenberger hit 47.8% of his threes and Tony Wy hit 45.9%. It's so funny to look at stats from that season. Stephen Bardo played 20 minutes per game and Kendall Gill 11 minutes per game. Bardo attempted three 3's the entire season and Gill attempted 1.
So I feel like we'd have to do some kind of "if they were playing in today's game..." thing with a topic like "best Illini shooting team." If the 1987 team played today, wouldn't Altenberger-Wysinger-Gill-Bardo be a great shooting team? Of course, when you watch videos from 1987, they're taking wide-open three pointers because some teams were all "just shoot from out there - we don't care". So those percentages probably go down (and they'd go down because of this new distance, too).
I've talked myself into a pretzel. So I'll just say this: I think you might be right? If Da'Monte can capture last year's magic touch, our frequently-used lineup of Frazier-Plummer-Williams-Grandison-Cockburn is simply "Kofi and the Four Shooters". If it really is "perhaps the best Illini big man of the modern era + the best Illini shooting team of the modern era", then we really have something.
Maybe I should kick that one back to you. It's something the guys from the Board Room mentioned last week. Is Kofi the best Illini center of our lifetimes? I've always worshiped Deon, but... is it Kofi?
Before I answer that question, I should mention that the only other team I really considered in my "best shooting team" thought process was 2005. Maybe it's tortured logic, but because the 2005 team was such a great passing team, my recollection is they got "better" three point looks on the whole. The 2005 group was 2nd best in the country at NOT turning the ball over and they assisted on ? of their made field goals that season. High assist rates are, of course, correlated to good shooting teams, and those stats tell me that the 2005 guys were taking great shots on the whole.
Plus if nothing else, the three point line was two feet closer in 2005.
So now, the center question. And yeah - at the risk of being accused of recency bias - it's Kofi.
If for nothing else - the rebounding. Deon was a solid rebounder, but Kofi is just a monster. In Deon's best rebounding season (his junior year), he averaged just 8 rebounds a game. We don't have rebounding percentage stats from Deon's time (at least I couldn't find any), but one of the main variables in that equation is percentage of team total rebounds. In Deon's junior season, his percentage was a solid 22%. Kofi's percentage in the nine games he's played this season is 29%.
Plus after this season - in which Kofi is on pace for the best single season by a big man in Illinois history - the career stats will start to align more favorably. (And yes I know Nick Weatherspoon went for 25/12 on average in 1973, but Spoon also took 22 shots per game.) Were Kofi to come back and play his senior year, he would legitimately challenge Deon's school scoring record, and if you think about it in those terms, it likely ends all debate.
So I'm with you, let's roll into 2022 with the mantra of "best Illini big man of the modern era + the best Illini shooting team of the modern era" and see what happens.
I've got the shirt: