"Winning ugly" is the sleepiest of tired cliches. I know it, you know it. My Rhet 105 professor surely knew it. But it's late and it took me forever to drive back from Madison to the Chicago burbs in a snowstorm so I'm rolling with it. Besides, I'm not really sure what else fits. Anyone else have a word to describe that first half?
Yet after today's methodical (and ugly) 61-51 win over Wisconsin in the Kohl Center, Illinois has now rattled off six wins in the last seven games since that abomination in Evanston. This little push over the past three weeks has quashed any bubble talk and has kept Illinois solidly in play for a Thursday bye in the Big Ten Tournament (let's be real - barring injury, no one is catching Purdue).
Yet angst remains high across Illini Twitter. Near the end of our We Love No Other podcast on Wednesday night, I stumbled across a rather crazy stat - which I then tweeted:
This is crazy. Illinois’ record through 20 games in the last 4 seasons:— Tyler Cottingham (@TylerCott) January 26, 2023
Brad Underwood is nothing if not remarkably consistent. The #Illini closed at 6-5 in ‘20, 8-1 in ‘21, and 7-3 in ‘22. Predictions on the final 11 games this year?
69 thousand views? Nice.
Yet the number of replies to the tweet forecasting a sub .500 finish the rest of the way was more than a little surprising to me. "INCONSISTENT!" was the word I kept seeing.
I feel like that word always seems to get thrown out when the collective opinion of a team is the dreaded "not living up to expectations." Heck, I've probably used it myself a few times this season. It's an easy (if not lazy) way to offer a short order take on a team when put on the spot.
For example, If I'm wearing Illini gear at the gym and someone asks me what I think about the team - what am I going to say?
"Well, their two point defense is among the best in all of college basketball on most nights, and although they consistently get good looks at the rim, their outside shooting continues to be a huge limiting factor!"
"Yeah - just a roller coaster team this season - so inconsistent!"
That second option is just so much easier. But I don't think it's accurate.
It is a flawed team to be sure, but inconsistent? I'd argue the opposite. 21 games in, I feel like you pretty much know what you're going to get with this team on most nights.
You're getting a team on offense that struggles shooting the ball - both from deep (32%) and the foul line (66%) - but makes up for it by converting two point baskets at a high rate (55%) because they get a ton of good looks around the rim.
On defense they sell out to prevent threes (teams only average 29% of their attempts from deep) and use their collective length to protect the rim (7.4% block rate) and force teams into relying on tough two point shots (43% shooting on 2P attempts).
Our efficiency ratings, our shooting percentages, our tempo, our rebounding rates - all are remarkably consistent when comparing the non-conference and conference-only numbers.
The one stat that has actually changed a great deal is the turnover rate. We simply could not hold onto the ball in November and December. Our non-conference turnover rate was a whopping 21.4% (300th worst out of 363 D-1 teams), but in conference play we have shaved that down to just over 16% and that includes a downright respectable 14.5% in the last seven games. I don't feel it's a coincidence that this six of seven stretch has aligned with a drop in turnovers. You just can't give away possessions in this league.
In any case, despite the current season cruising along within a single game of the pace of each of the last three seasons, the prevailing view of this team seems to be one of mistrust. I think it's the nature of the losses. Double digit losses to rivals tend to be magnified despite them counting only once in the right hand side of the W/L column. Ultimately, it seems like this team is often getting graded more on style over substance.
I'll be the first to admit that the style of play hasn't been the most aesthetically pleasing of late, but don't fall into the "inconsistency bias" trap. Don't make grand proclamations of doom the next time this team throws up a clunker - because it's going to happen again - and probably more than once. That's what flawed teams do. Heck - that's what every team in college basketball does this season. Except Purdue. Damn them.
That said we're also still likely due a game or two where we see an outlier shooting performance to go along with the usual stalwart defensive effort. We haven't seen a game like that this season. Games like home against Rutgers last season (86-51 win) or the beatdown administered in Ann Arbor in 2021
So over the second half of league play, I urge you to embrace the idea that you're not watching an inconsistent team, but more a flawed team that wins ugly - but still wins more often than not.
+RJ Melendez. Despite a rally inducing second half dunk on the heads of most of the Badger team - Melendez continues to struggle mightily with his outside shot. He is 4 for his last 24 from the arc and his shot looks mechanically wonky right now. He may well find himself in a battle for minutes when Luke Goode returns, but until then let me offer a comp. 2013 Tyler Griffey was mired in a similar funk midway through the season. Griffey went 2-24 over a ten game stretch during which we lost 7 of 10. However, Griffey bounced back - shooting 37.2% over the final 13 games of the season - which included two NCAA Tournament games.
+Dain Dainja shot a mid-range jump shot - left handed. He made it. I don't think I've ever seen a player voluntarily shoot a jump shot with his off hand. Like ever.
+During our podcast on Wednesday, I made the point that we either get 5-star Coleman Hawkins or 1-star Coleman Hawkins. Today - we actually saw "middle of the road" Coleman. Great post defense, solid rebounding (9), a couple blocks and a couple of assists. Yet only three shot attempts - most of which were late shot clock force-ups. On a day in which TSJ was limited and the offense was stuck in the mud - especially in the first half - I would love to see him more aggressive on that end of the floor. Obviously we can win games with "role player" Coleman, but I still feel that he holds the key to the elevator that reaches the ceiling for this team.
+Sencire Harris minutes over the last five games: 20-17-7-9. That, ladies and gentlemen, feels like a trend.