At this time last year, the Illini program was not in great shape. Just three years removed from their run to the NCAA title game in 2005, Illinois collapsed in 2007-08. On the court, the team set the school record for losses in a season, mostly because they couldn't shoot. Even when they did win, it resembled a mid-90s Pat Riley-coached Miami Heat victory. I.e., football. Off the court, it was even uglier. Bruce Weber was still recovering from the defection of superstar recruit Eric Gordon, fights were breaking out in the locker room, and sharpshooter Jamar Smith was finally jettisoned from the team after his most recent night filled with alcohol and bad decisions. It was hard to believe that the team of the three-headed monster and Dee Brown had sunk so low.
And to the relief of Illini fans, it has remained hard to believe. Last year, Bruce Weber's squad slingshotted up the standings of the Big Ten. Readers of this blog know that in addition to the very real shortcomings of the 07-08 team, that squad was also snakebitten to a large degree. Consider the following:
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
That's right, the 08-09 version of Illinois was not all that different from the 07-08 squad. Even harder to believe, the 07-08's rebuttal to the watching-paint-dry-boredom of Big Brother (also known as "offense") was better. And most hard to believe, free throw shooting was a massive strength for the bricklaying Illini compared to last year's finesse team. After all, last year's team shot a decent 71% from the line, while the year before Illinois Pruitted its way to 61%. The real difference comes with the amount of trips to the line. Fortunately, the two teams shot nearly an equal amount of times from the field so that this point can be made rather easily:
Incredibly, the 07-08 team made nearly as many free throws as the 08-09 team attempted. Indeed, last year's team was the worst team in Division One in terms of free throw conversions per field goals attempted. #344 out of 344.
Frankly, that's the good news for Illini fans. There's nowhere to go but up. And it's not as if the team struggled overall last year. Although the Illini were unceremoniously bounced from the Dance by an upstart Western Kentucky squad, a 24 win season is nothing to be ashamed of. What's odd about the team was how they functioned offensively. They didn't like shooting three pointers (only 28.8% of their FGA were 3s), but as mentioned earlier, they were terrible at getting to the line. Not only that, this was a bad offensive rebounding team. As we remarked plenty of times last season, Weber's team looking like a POT...but without the "P." Once you watched this team play, however, it was clear what was going on:
They were running the worst offensive scheme ever contrived.
Ok, maybe's that a bit misleading. Obviously, the Illini weren't that historically terrible on offense, but taken at face value, the underlying principles behind their offensive philosophy were questionable. Illinois, led by "step out" big men Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, were taking a lot of mid-range jump shots. It's often lamented by color commentators that the mid-range shot is a dying art form, but the truth is that it's only dying because it ought to. The odds of making a 19 foot shot are roughly the same as the odds of making a 20 foot shot, but it comes with the heavy price of 1 point. Furthermore, the chances of being fouled or grabbing the offensive rebound on a 19 foot shot are also nearly identical for the 20 foot shot -- bad.
Which is to say that a team that shoots a lot of mid-range jumpshots is taking on all of the costs that a POT endures, but with none (ok, some. The turnovers stay low.) of the benefits. Given other options, it's a bad shot.
But Bruce Weber is a pretty sharp guy, and surely these basic principles do not elude him. No, it was more likely a matter of tailoring his offense to fit his players' talents. Outside of Trent Meacham, the Illini did not feature many three point shooters. And while Davis and Tisdale are capable scorers, they are not beasts on the block. It made sense to play this way, even if playing this way came with significant costs.
On defense, this was a typical Bruce Weber team. Smothering. No matter the talent on the roster, Weber's teams have maintained an incredibly high standard on defense. That probably won't change much this year. We'll talk about what will change in tomorrow's post.