Kings Of The Road
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Let's just start with the numbers here - because they are the lede. Illinois has won 18 Big Ten conference regular season road games over the last two plus seasons - including 15 of their last 20. Understand that 15 TOTAL wins in a Big Ten regular season would have been good enough for at least a share of the conference championship in six out of the last ten seasons. So basically Illinois has put together a championship caliber record in just its last 20 road games.
+Wisconsin Big Ten total road wins since 2019: 13
+Ohio State Big Ten total road wins since 2019: 12
+Michigan Big Ten total road wins since 2019: 12
+Michigan State Big Ten total road wins since 2019: 12
By comparison, John Groce had 14 total road wins over his entire five year stint as lllinois head coach. After Dee, Deron, and Luther all departed, Bruce Weber won a total of 17 road games over his final six seasons as head coach.
Again, Brad Underwood has 18 in the last 2.5 seasons alone.
Teams just don't do that on the road in this conference - at least not over a stretch of multiple seasons. Those post game videos of Underwood charging into the visitors locker room screaming like a crazy person are almost cliche at this point.
So what has turned this core group of players - Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, Kofi Cockburn, and Jacob Grandison - into such seasoned travelers?
Poise is one word which comes to mind. Between Underwood and his players, I think I heard that word mentioned about a half dozen times in the post game interviews after today's 74-57 dismantling of Indiana at their Assembly Hall.
Certainly there is that. These dudes don't scare. We're talking about 22, 23, and 24 year old men here. They have been through some stuff. Plus in the case of Trent and DMW, those two have been around long enough to know what it's like to lose as well. That brings a humbling perspective to go along with a battle sharpened edge.
Over the 18 road wins, the Illini have come back from double digit deficits four times, been down two possessions with less than five minutes to play three times, and won in overtime twice.
And while they've certainly taken care of business against the Nebraskas and Northwesterns of the world, they've also won at some of the toughest venues in the league. Carver-Hawkeye, the Kohl Center, Crisler, Mackey, Value City, and Bloomington's Assembly Hall. They will have a chance this month to add Breslin and the RAC to their list of skins as well.
And while intangibles such as poise and maturity certainly play a part, what has really turned this team into Road Warriors is a little more objective. Yeah, it's the defense.
One of Brad Underwood's favorite sayings is that "defense travels", and he's so very right. Of those 18 conference road wins, Illinois has held its opponents at or under 1.00 points per possession in 13 of them. Per KenPom's defensive efficiency ratings Illinois was 4th in the conference in 2020, 2nd last season, and are 1st so far this season through 12 games.
What we do on defense is actually pretty basic:
Run teams off the three point line
Funnel all dribble penetration into Kofi-land
Our defense believes strongly in the complex math formula which states that 3 > 2. As such, we are tops in the Big Ten in lowest percentage of three point attempts allowed per total field goal attempts (26.2% in conference games). By contrast - the Illini offense shoots threes on 42% of their total field goal attempts.
And while we aren't a prolific shot blocking team - much of that is due to guys simply not being willing to challenge Kofi at the rim. So instead you see teams getting stuck in the middle with long twos or tough guarded shots in the lane - but not at the rim where shooting percentages really tend to skyrocket.
Look at IUs' shot chart on the right here for example:
What a mess. (By contrast - ours is once again glorious.)
There will be an occasional game where a team throws in a bunch of two point shots and you just tip your cap on those nights, but most of the time - this is a winning - and shockingly simple - defensive strategy
Today's second half was a defensive clinic. Indiana had pushed out to a two point halftime lead - built largely on 10 made free throws. We were forcing those twos, but they converted a few and we got caught drifting too close on a few of those attempts and committed shooting fouls in the process.
In the second half, though, the fouling issue was corrected and Kofi, Trent, and DMW went to work.
Trayce Jackson-Davis is a crafty offensive player who uses angles to score as effectively as any big man in the conference. Kofi closed down those scoring angles by walling off and forcing him to shoot up and over that wall instead of "around" it. TJD finished the game 3/9 and is now shooting under 35% from the floor (17/49) in his four games (all losses) against Kofi. It's worth noting I think, that TJD is a 56% shooter over his career.
Xavier Johnson had some things going in the first half - including his mouth apparently -
Uhh let’s just say Brad is not happy with Xavier Johnson and how he’s talking to the #Illini players and bench. Underwood making it very clear to both Xavier and the officials he’s not here for it— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) February 5, 2022
He finished the half with 9 points, but he got the full Trent Frazier experience in the second half and ended the game with just 12 points on 4/11 shooting. Underwood raved about Trent's conditioning after the game - calling him the "Energizer Bunny" and stating it's that extra gear he has that breaks down offensive players over the course of a full game.
The matchup that had me worried going into this game was Race Thompson against Da'Monte Williams. We've had our issues against long and athletic power forwards this season, but DMW won his battle today - forcing Thompson to take 13 shots to get his 13 points. That's DMW locking down a guy with five inches and twenty pounds on him.
It got so bad for Indiana in the second half that with five minutes to play and the game still not completely out of reach at 63-51, IU coach Mike Woodson benched his starters. It mattered little though, as we closed this game on a 32-11 run and finished with the largest margin of victory at Indiana since 1956.
Part of me feels a little nervous spouting off about our road game success with four road games still remaining - including the small matter of the conference game of the year at Mackey on Tuesday - but even if we lost all four of them, the 18 road wins in the books over the last three seasons remain a truly remarkable number more than worth these words.
+Andre Curbelo is still not quite there yet. He was effective getting into the lane today, but struggled finishing shots and ended the day with just 3 points on 1 of 4 shooting and no assists in 12 minutes.
+The All-Big Ten first team is going to be a tough lineup to crack, but Trent Frazier is one of the 10 best players in this conference this season.
+After the game Brad Underwood called Bo Boroski one of the "best officials in our game." He offered that assessment after being asked about the sequence in which Curbelo was tripped without a call and Luke Goode was assessed a flagrant breakaway foul going the other way. Per Underwood, Boroski admitted to him that he missed the tripping call which goes a long way in Brad's mind. I think I've come to the conclusion that I like Bo on the road, but not so much at home.
+Tuesday at Purdue is not a must win by any stretch, but man could you put a serious stranglehold on the conference regular season championship if you could somehow get out of West Lafayette with what would be...a 19th road win in three seasons.