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It's the halfway point of the conference season and The Grind is in full effect.
January is the rough and tumble portion of Big Ten Conference play. It's typically wheat vs chaff month. Attempting to apply the transitive property to the Big Ten regular season is folly. You are never more than one degree of separation from a crazy upset in this conference. Every win is a good win. To wit:
Illinois hammered Rutgers who then beat Purdue but lost at home to Maryland who took down Illinois but was then spanked at home by Indiana who then got spanked themselves at home by Michigan who lost to Minnesota who lost to Ohio State who lost to Wisconsin who lost to MSU who lost to Northwestern who took that momentum and promptly lost four straight - the fourth of those losses coming this afternoon to Illinois.
Everyone knows everyone inside and out by now and we are in no way exempt from that. The scouts are out. Defenses are forcing our ball screens higher out on the floor. Teams are pressuring our ball handlers. Double and triple teams are coming at Kofi from different places. Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison aren't sneaking up on people anymore and each have seen their shooting percentages dwindle as a result of the increased attention.
But you just have to keep finding a way in this league. And that's been the calling card of Brad Underwood and Illinois these past three seasons.
You either learn how to grind out wins or the conference chews you up and spits you out. Consider Northwestern - who currently sits at #68 in the KenPom ratings. It's probably Chris Collins' best team since their NCAA Tournament squad from five years ago. (It must seem like forever and a day for Wildcat fans.)
They are a perfectly cromulent basketball team - who keep finding ways to lose. They are 2-8 in league play so far - with 7 of those losses coming by single digits. They've practically patented the "come from ahead" loss. Collins lamented as much in his postgame press conference this afternoon.
The Illini-Northwestern games of recent vintage have been grinders in their own right. Although Illinois has 37 wins in the Big Ten over the past two and half seasons and lead the conference in scoring margin over that same period, four of the five games against Northwestern have been decided by single digits. Yet, here we are with seven straight wins against Chicago's Big Ten Team*. We just keep finding a way.
But how exactly - even with two preseason all Americans each out for extended stretches? Well for starters, different dudes keep showing up at precisely the right time.
Of course, Alfonso Plummer has been a godsend and Trent Frazier brings it every night. But it's also Omar Payne and Coleman Hawkins against Nebraska. It's Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Luke Goode against Michigan State. Today it was DMW, Podz, and RJ Melendez. You know, Brad Underwood just may be onto something with this "Culture Win" stuff.
You also have to defend to have success in this league. Underwood is fond of the old basketball adage that "defense travels" and the Illinois defense has traveled right on through into conference play.
On January 1, we were 9th nationally in college basketball in offensive efficiency and 37th in defensive efficiency per KenPom. Over the past month, those numbers have trended in opposite directions. We sit now at 22nd on offense and 26th on defense. That's life in the Big Ten meat grinder. Points are at a premium.
So while the offense has faltered a bit over the past month, the defense has grown stouter. We are #2 in the Big Ten in overall defense despite being 11th in the league in forced turnover percentage and 14th in steal percentage.
We are best in the conference in both effective FG percentage against and three point shots allowed per field goal attempt. (Over the course of a 20 game conference schedule, it's less about your 3 point FG% allowed and more about how many three point attempts you allow.)
Quite simply - we guard.
So the end result - 6 Big Ten wins in January and sole possession of first place. It's nothing new, though. Brad Underwood is 17-5 in the league in January over the past three seasons. What can you say - the dude's a grinder.
+ After Underwood opened his pre-Northwestern press conference on Friday morning with an unprompted rant against Trent Frazier being left off the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year watch list, I posted a little Twitter thread on the subject. People seemed to like it…
#Illini coach Brad Underwood was on 🔥 today about Trent Frazier being left off the Naismith college DPOY watch list. This award is usually skewed towards blocks & steals but as Underwood notes it’s usually “a night off” for the guy Trent is checking. Let’s dive into that… (1/7) pic.twitter.com/0LMruNt9Fl— Tyler Cottingham (@TylerCott) January 28, 2022
After today, Frazier's numbers are now somehow even better. In 92 man-to-man defensive possessions against ball screen/pick and roll, offensive players are scoring only .511 points per possession - or only 27% of the time. If you see Boo Buie's soul lying around the Northwestern campus this week, it's because Frazier decided he didn't want to keep it.
+ Hey Kofi's back...
This clip you watch again - and this time you focus on the Northwestern bench.
+ Andre Curbelo did not travel with the team today as he remains in "Health and Safety Protocol" - which is a bunch of words to say COVID. Here's hoping he's back for Wisconsin at the SFC on Wednesday - if for nothing else but to give Trent Frazier some support. Frazier went the full 40 today and taking into account the 48 minutes he played against Purdue, he's actually averaging 40 mins per game (39.75) over the last four, and his offense is starting to feel the weight - shooting only 20/51 from the field 39% and 9/32 (28%) from three. He needs some help.
+ Jacob Grandison is also officially in a slump. He's only made 10 of his last 37 threes (27%) himself and he's also been uncharacteristically careless with the ball in recent games. Teams are keying on him more now and he's going to need to make an adjustment.
+ What can you say about Da'Monte Williams. In the last five minutes today he had three rebounds, an assist, two defensive kills on Pete Nance, and four points - on just one shot attempt…