This is John Groce’s first season as Illinois’ head coach. I don’t mean that literally—obviously, he’s been in Champaign for a couple of seasons. But this is the first season in which the roster was truly of his design. And despite the fact that everyone seemingly has nice things to say about the former Ohio State assistant, the Illini are consistently put in the 7th to 9th range in the preseason Big Ten standings. Basically, people are sleeping on Illinois. Consider this preview a wakeup call.
First, let’s talk about what’s wrong with Illinois. Somewhat ironically, it’s team captain Nnanna Egwu, the only holdover from the Bruce Weber regime that will play this season (senior Tracy Abrams will miss the season with a torn ACL). The 6-11 center has developed into a plus defender—albeit one that’s a little light on defensive rebounding—but he’s been a very big liability on the offensive end. Egwu has always been a poor shooter, but that’s mostly been about shot selection, as an all too-high 61.5 percent of his shots were of the midrange variety. It’s hard to be efficient like that.
That “mostly” qualifier is important, as I’m not sure this problem would go away entirely even if all of Egwu’s attempts came at the rim. He only converted 63 percent of those attempts last year, even on a fairly selective diet (just 29 percent of his FGAs). Generally speaking, the more you attempt of something, the less successful you’ll be. This is because the “extra” attempts are not going to be of the wide-open variety, as the player is already taking those shots. The extra attempts will be challenged shots, or shots with the off hand, or under shot clock duress. So even if Egwu swears off midrange shots for good, his field goal percentage would almost certainly be well below 60 percent.
And frankly, I don’t expect a 4th-year player to change his stripes that significantly. If there’s one shooting trend in Egwu’s career, it’s an increased propensity to attempt three-pointers (starting at 0, to 6, to 23 last season). I expect that to continue. And he might be fairly successful with those, given last year’s free throw shooting (78 percent). By the way, that’s another casualty of Egwu’s midrange game—in 103 career games, he’s attempted 102 free throws.
However, other than Egwu, Illinois’ offense should be scorching this season. Consider the career three-point percentages of the Illini wing players:
Obviously, one of these things is not like the others, but more on that in a bit. For the moment, consider whether Illinois has the second-best shooting in the conference behind Michigan (four players boasting 38 percent or better is pretty tough to beat). Considering another competitor is Wisconsin, who I think the Illini edge out, that’s no small feat.
It’s also worth noting that two players on this list were freshmen last season, and the last time Cosby and Starks played, they each shot 40 percent from three-point range. But even this level of shooting is not why I’m high on Illinois’ offense this year. I think the biggest plus the team has going is usage. Let’s take a look at the shot distribution (using the most recent season of the players) of a lineup I think we’ll see fairly often this season:
Total that up, and it’s 105.3 percent of the available shots. Obviously, that’s too many. That’s a very good thing, as it means each of these players can be more selective with the shots they take, and there should be fewer end-of-shot-clock desperation situations as well. As for the rest of the rotation? Ahmad Starks will get something close to starter’s minutes, and his Shot Percentage was over 25.0 for 2 of his 3 seasons at Oregon State (with high efficiency). Freshman Leron Black (RSCI #46) is a strong rebounder, but it’s not clear what his usage will be like. The last spot or two in the rotation will likely go to one of the sophomore big men (Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert) or sophomore Jaylon Tate.
It’s worth mentioning that Tate is the only thing on the roster that statistically looks like a point guard (Starks looks like one physically in that he’s really short, but he’s played more like a combo in his career thus far). That said, there should be enough ballhandling on the floor such that Tate’s services will not be in high demand. That’s a good thing, as his 1 for 23 accuracy from three-point range last year would not fit in with the rest of the crowd.
That’s also an issue with Rice, who has never been all that accurate of a shooter. Rice dominated against lesser competition last season, with an offensive rating over 120 in the non-conference slate. In the Big Ten it was a different story, however, as Rice shot just 36 percent from the field to finish with a 94 offensive rating.
Of course, last season it’s not like there were a lot of superior options to Rice. This was the worst-shooting team in the Big Ten, and Rice was at least assertive. This year, he won’t have to be, as he’ll be surrounded by accurate and confident shooters. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Groce will be finding a way to get Rice to pass up shots he’s likely to miss—even at Drake, Rice was a quick firing shooter that wasn’t terribly accurate. The team is deep enough that Illinois doesn’t need him on the floor for his offense, however, Rice is also Illinois’ best defender.
It’s hard to miss Groce’s emphasis on “sacrifice” heading into this season, and that has to apply to Rice’s offense in particular. If he can dial his shot percentage to a more manageable 22 or 23 percent, the team will be much better for it.
In a lot of ways, Illinois looks very much like Michigan, in that it has a loaded backcourt but a lot of question marks in the frontcourt. I like Michigan’s backcourt a bit more, and Illinois has fewer questions on the interior, but both teams look awfully similar otherwise, and I expect similar results as well. Falling onto the bubble would be a disappointment for this year’s Illini.