Believe it or not, but we start playing basketball in a couple of weeks. Not just exhibition games, but real stuff! In an effort to get you prepared for the season, we're going to take a look at each team's non-conference schedule slate. Like the team previews, we're going alphabetically. First up - Illinois.
Overview: The Eagles hail from the Big Sky conference, are coming off a 9-19 season, and will probably take a step back from that. Sure, the Eagles return 70.7% of the minutes from last season, but most of the missing minutes were tied up in their best player, Kellen Williams. Williams was one of two players on the team with an ORtg above 100.
What to look for: Bad offense. The Eagles really struggle with putting the ball in the basket, as they carried a 46.9 eFG last season.
Who to watch: 5-11 PG Adris DeLeon is quite the chucker. While on the court last season, he attempted 31% of EWU's shots. Of course, he only converted 32% of his 3s, and 40.9% of his twos. Still, he needs to play, because he's the only thing resembling a PG on this team.
Expect the unexpected: The Eagles were a terrible shooting team last season, sure, but they did convert 72% of their free throws. Maybe their struggles do not stem from a talent deficiency, but rather poor shot selection.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 85%
Texas A&M University at Corpus-Christi
Overview: TAMUCC comes off a 9-20 season, and like all early season cupcakes, figure to be the underdog in this matchup. However, TAMUCC returns 79.1% of their minutes from last season, and could make this game a lot closer than one might expect.
What to look for: Tenacious offensive rebounding. Although TAMUCC loses 7-0, 265 lbs. behemoth Chris Daniels, Daniels was shooting too much to be a dominant offensive rebounder. Freshmen Demond Watt and Justin Reynolds owned the offensive glass last season, and figure to be improved as sophomores. This is where Illinois' thin front line could really hurt. Also, the Islanders were not afraid to use their bench - 10 players had at least a 25% Min%.
Who to watch: A trio of sophomores - the aforementioned Watt and Reynolds, plus Ken Perkins. Outside of Daniels, those were Islanders' best players last season. This could really be a surprise team in the Southland conference.
Expect the unexpected: It's hard to believe the 10th tallest team in the country last season also had one of the worst defenses in basketball, but that's what happens when you give your opponent 45 FTAs for every 100 FGAs. That figures to improve this season, and opponents would be wise not to beat the Islanders on the inside. At 6-4, Shannon Shorter's name is all-too-perfect on a team that consistently features two seven-footers.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 75%
Overview: The Commodores come off a 26-7 season and bring back one of last season's top freshmen in A.J. Ogilvy. That said, I see Vandy taking a big step back this season. They bring back only 42% of the minutes from last season, and the numbers behind those numbers don't look encouraging. The highest returning Shot% on the team, outside Ogilvy, belongs to George Drake, at 23.0. Of course, Drake converted an eFG of 32.2 (!). After him, the honors belong to Andre Walker, at 14.3.
What to look for: AJ, AJ, and more AJ. Frankly, any possession that does not go through the big fella is a bad one. As for style, the Commodores are a POT, so the lack of a dominating interior presence shouldn't hurt the Illini here (other than, you know, containing Ogilvy).
Who to watch: Besides Ogilvy, of course, the Commodores bring in a decent recruiting class. I expect to see them play early, but none are ranked highly enough that it's a sure thing that they'll be instant impact performers.
Expect the unexpected: If this team is going anywhere, Jermaine Beal needs to score more. He's a reluctant shooter (13.8 Shot%), and his 3P shooting is not pretty (31.3%). However, his FT shooting (75.7%) indicates he might have some ability there. Whether or not this team reaches a postseason tournament might depend upon whether Beal can put points on the board.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 51%
Overview: Jackson State featured some bad basketball last season. Their record was 14-20, and that probably included some lucky breaks. Nationally, this team was 317th in offensive efficiency, and 306th in defensive efficiency. But at least they were fun to watch! - the Tigers routinely average over 70 possessions a game, and next year should be no different.
What to look for: JSU likes to keep things inside the arc. While this team doesn't shoot very well from the perimeter (31.8%), they also have a severe turnover problem (22.0%). But they force turnovers at a pretty blistering rate as well (22.0%).
Who to watch: Senior Darrion Griffin will shoulder the load for this team. He shot well from 2 point range (51.2%), and 3 point range (40.3%), and got to the line like he was Eric Gordon (64.8 FT Rate). Imagine how good he could be if he made more of his free throws (68.4%). Junior Grant Maxey might also give the Illini trouble inside.
Expect the unexpected: Anyone have a guess as to why Edwin Jarrow saw 14.8 minutes per game last season? Despite only taking 6.1% of the available shots (!), Jarrow shot only 28.1% from two point range (!!) and 16.7% from three point range (!!!). Furthermore, despite the fact that he was not creating for his teammates, as evidenced by the 6.6 Assist Rate (!!!!), he was an auto-turnover with a TO Rate of 30.3 (!!!!!!!). And even though he was 6-6, he was the worst defensive rebounder of any regular (8.4 DReb%). And before you ask, the answer is yes, he's always been this bad. Compromising photographs? Insanely good joke-teller? Part-time hypnotist? Whatever the case, he's moved on, but a coach crazy enough to give Jarrow 15 minutes a game cannot be game-planned.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 90%
at Kent (South Padre Invitational)
Overview: Jim Christian quietly built one of the best mid-major programs in the country. The Golden Flashes went 28-6 last season, which included an NCAA appearance (and first round exit). KSU is probably looking for some "in between" competition - the MAC competition does not prepare them for the NCAA games in March, and getting blown out by UNC and Xavier (which happened last year) isn't that helpful either. So Illinois, which figures to be around a top 75 team, is a good fit.
What to look for: The Flashes return 69.3% of the minutes from last year, so we can probably expect they'll be about as good this season. As for style, in a lot of ways, this team is like a poor man's Michigan State. They average around 66 possessions, shoot and rebound very well on offense, rarely attempt three pointers, and they have a bit of a turnover problem. They don't look anything like MSU on defense, but the offensive similarity is there.
Who to watch: Al Fisher will take close to 30% of the team's shots, and with any luck, he'll be better at converting them than he was last season (45.1 eFG). His FT% (83.3%) is a positive indicator. This season also offers our last look at Julian Sullinger, middle brother of former and future Buckeyes J.J. and Jared.
Expect the unexpected: What's strange about the 07-08 season for the Golden Flashes is how lousy their defensive rebounding was (256th in the country). This is usually a strength under Coach Christian. In 05-06 for instance, KSU was 2nd in the nation on the defensive glass. If new head coach Geno Ford rights the rebounding ship, the Illini's thin front line could be in trouble.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 50%
Overview: Clemson was 23-9 last season, but man, that was a good 23-9. Consider that they were the 29th most efficient offense, and the 12th most efficient defense, and if you add it all up, it's the 13th best team in the country according to Pythagoras. So that 1st round loss to Villanova is a deceiving one, and it's probably what's kept Clemson out of most preseason polls. But a top 15 team that returns 65.9% of the minutes from a season ago is a formidable opponent. Clemson is dangerous, underrated, and probably every bit as good as they were last year, when they beat Duke, Purdue, and took UNC to three overtimes in three games.
What to look for: We'll find out exactly how good Illinois' backcourt is in this game. Clemson routinely forces opponents into turnovers about 25% of the time. Last year was no different, (24.3%), but there was also the added bonus of holding opponents to 30.4% three point shooting - and that's when there was a shot enticing enough to take, which wasn't often (Clemson opponents dedicated only 28.6% of their FGAs to threes).
Who to watch: On offense, the man is KC Rivers. He's a 6-5 guard who hits 40% of his three pointers, and never turns it over (9.9% TO Rate). On defense, it's Trevor Booker, who has put up Block% of 8.7 and 6.9 since he arrived on campus, and now has a 20+ DReb% as well. I'm not sure which player is more impressive.
Expect the unexpected: Terrence Oglesby looks like a player. He was only a freshman last season, but he took an impressive 28.8% of the shots while on the floor in significant time, and put up an eFG of 53.2, which was fueled by 40.3% on his three pointers. His 85% FT Rate suggests it was no fluke. He could be the best player on this time by the end of the season.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 30%
Georgia (at the United Center)
Overview: Georgia's sort of been a doormat of the SEC for a while now, and I'm not sure anything will change this season, even after their unlikely run in the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs return 53.6% of the minutes from a team that wasn't exactly dominant last year. Expect little progress from that.
What to look for: While Illinois should still be the favorite, this will be a good test for them because Georgia routinely has excellent offensive rebounding. The Illini big men will be challenged.
Who to watch: This section would look a lot different if Billy Humphrey could stay out of trouble. He didn't, so now Georgia is without its top 4 minutes-grabbers from last season. None of the returning players appear to be locks for a breakout, so I'll go with #24 RSCI PF Howard Thompkins.
Expect the unexpected: Georgia could take a bigger step back than people might otherwise expect. Their FT defense was among the best in the country last season (64.8%).
Chance of an Illinois victory: 70%
Overview: This is the return game from a fairly entertaining 2 point contest in Honolulu last season. That said, the Warriors were a mere 11-19 last season, and they lose 7 seniors from last year's team. They're rebuilding.
What to look for: Last season was Bob Nash's first at Hawaii, so it's hard to get a read on what he's looking to do out there. Nash's defense forced a lot of TOs last season, and didn't take a lot of three pointers.
Who to watch: I'll go with the returnee that played the most minutes last year, Bill Amis. The 6-9 C was gifted at putting the ball in the hoop (56.3 eFG), but now he's going to have to do it on a much larger shot diet (19.6% last year).
Expect the unexpected: Interestingly enough, Hawaii's opponents also kept things inside the perimeter, despite the fact that the Warriors were the 12th tallest team in the country last year.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 85%
Overview: The Cougars haven't finished with more than 12 wins since, well, I don't know. Statsheet only goes back to the 1989-90 season. Although I don't expect Chicago State to be good this season, they have a reasonable shot of ending that streak this year.
What to look for: Head Coach Benjy Taylor ran quite a bit in his first season at the helm. The Cougars averaged 73 possessions a game, good for 15th in the nation. Again, fast basketball is not necessarily good basketball.
Who to watch: Senior David Holston and Junior John Cantrell combined to take over 60% of the shots while they were on the floor. And what's more, they were highly efficient. Cantrell shot over 40% on his 3s, and put up Jamar Butler-esque assist and turnover rates (34.3/19.8). Cantrell's a tougher nut to crack - despite the fact that he stands at only 6-2, he rarely took 3s (and didn't convert them when he did - 29.4%), but shot over 55% on over 300 two-point attempts. It's not unreasonable to suspect that he would struggle to keep up that shooting against BCS opponents that feature tall shotblockers.
Expect the unexpected: While Holston and Cantrell should improve the offense, the defense might be in trouble. Chicago State was the 3rd shortest team in the country last season (the team featured 3 players in the rotation under six feet), and with an outgoing 7-0 senior, that situation doesn't figure to change much.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 95%
Overview: Detroit is the beneficiary of the Kelvin Sampson fallout, as former assistant Ray McCallum is now the head coach for the Titans. While this is likely just a stepping stone to bigger and better things, it's likely McCallum will advance the program in his tenure. Already, the Titans have scored one big catch (hide the flower pots).
What to look for: McCallum used to be the head coach at Ball State, from 1993 to 2000, so we can get a sense of his coaching style by looking at those teams...if there was a pattern to be seen. But there's not. Some years they were fast, sometimes slow, sometimes they forced TOs, sometimes they rebounded well, sometimes they made their 3s, etc. If McCallum had a style, I'm not seeing it.
Who to watch: The team will revolve around senior Chris Hayes, but this team will struggle to replace sharpshooter Jon Goode, who coverted 33% of the available shots with ruthless efficiency.
Expect the unexpected: Keep an eye on 7-3 former super-recruit (and former Kansas State Wildcat) Jason Bennett. Open looks in the middle will be tough to come by.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 75%
at Missouri (in St. Louis)
Overview: Missouri fans will likely wonder "what if?" this season. Although they were only 16-16 last year, they were more like a 20-win team according to their efficiency. And they were set to bring back three efficient seniors in Matt Lawrence, DeMarre Carroll, and Leo Lyons. Well, that all happened, but they also lost Keon Lawrence, who transferred to Seton Hall. Lawrence was no superstar, but he played more than anyone, and his replacement will likely be a downgrade. As it stands, Missouri was a good team last year, but one that only returns 49.6% of those minutes.
What to look for: This one is easy. Missouri thrives off of forcing turnovers, and likes to run. They're like the Tennessee of the Big 12.
Who to watch: Those three seniors will still lead this team, only with less of a supporting cast. Lyons and Carroll each have a shot at earning postseason All Big 12 honors. Although they're about the same height, Lawrence is the perimeter player, and Carroll battles on the inside.
Expect the unexpected: Stefhon Hannah had a troubled final season in Columbia, and as a result, the Tigers played without a true PG for much of the year. Someone's going to need to handle the ball, but there are no obvious candidates. If nobody steps up, Mizzou's sparkling 17.7 TO% is in jeopardy.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 60%
Overview: The Eagles were 14-17 last season, but they weren't your typical mid-major pushover. If Coach Ramsey wanted, he probably could have had this team in the NIT. Instead, they lost games against Notre Dame, Temple, and Rhode Island. This season, the Eagles are touring the Big Ten, with games at Purdue, Michigan, and Illinois.
What to look for: Status quo. The Eagles lost enough minutes (they return 56.2% of the minutes from last year) that we shouldn't expect improvement, just more of the same. While there was a hiccup in 06-07, Coach Ramsey's teams generally do an excellent job at getting to the free throw line. In 04-05, they led the nation in this category. It's a good thing Brian Randle has graduated.
Who to watch: Carlos Medlock is the undisputed leader of the team. The 6-0 PG has a bit of a turnover problem (24.1% TO Rate), but makes up for it with his scoring ability. As you probably wouldn't expect, Medlock especially excels at getting to the FT line (54.7 FT Rate). We don't normally think of six foot point guards as players that draw fouls - especially those that attempt more three pointers (186) than two pointers (136).
Expect the unexpected: Eastern Michigan is a little bizzaro. They were 39th in the country in FT Rate, yet they attempted threes on 45.3% of their FGAs. Furthermore, FT Rate, for offense, is the number of made free throws per 100 FGAs. Thus, if we plug in the free throw percentage (72.9), we find that EMU averaged 40.3 FTAs per 100 FGAs. Now, it's probably safe to assume that very few of their FTAs came off three point attempts - it happens, but not often - so if we make that assumption, we find that EMU sees 73.8 FTAs per 100 two point attempts (somebody check my math here)! For reference, D.J. White averaged 83.7 last season. That said, this was likely a fluke - EMU has never pulled off a similar feat in any of the four seasons prior.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 75%