USA TODAY Sports
While the Auburn win was a lot tougher than it had any right to be, there was one aspect of the game that I truly enjoyed: the Illini shot 40 free throws.
The Illini are a basketball team that live at the lines. For the most part of the first 14 games, that line has been the three-point line, with the Illini relying on a whole lot of treys to put up points and rack up some victories. In Saturday's win over Auburn -- which U-God wrote about -- the Illini chose a new place to find points.
The free throw line.
Illinois shot 40 free throws on Saturday, and even though they only made 27 of them, it was still wonderful to see. It was far and away the most free throws the Illini have taken in a game this season. In fact, before Saturday's game, the Illini had only shot 239 free throws through their first 13 games. The 40 attempts on Saturday account for 14.3% of the free throws we've taken on the season.
And it's a necessary step.
I love the three-pointer as much as anybody, but they can kill you when they're not falling. In recent years this had a tendency to kill the Illini because Bruce Weber's strategy when the team wasn't shooting well from deep seemed to be just to shoot more of them. I'm happy to see that's not the case with John Groce's team.
In their last four games -- since the win over Gonzaga -- the Illini have attempted 93 three-pointers. They've made 24 of them, or 26%. As a result, we've started to see this team attack the basket a bit more, and I'm a big fan of this aggressive approach.
The Illini shot only 19 free throws against Missouri, but it was Brandon Paul who took 14 of them as his jumper wasn't falling. In that same Missouri game, D.J. Richardson was 1 of 9 from deep. On Saturday against Auburn we saw D.J. catch the ball behind the line, ball fake, and then drive to the rim for a layup multiple times. He only ended up shooting 5 free throws -- and he struggled from the floor again -- but that's beside the point. What matters is he attacked the rim instead of relying on a jumper that just isn't falling right now.
This is the right approach to take. A few layups and free throws can do wonders for your jump shot. First of all, it can get defenders to back off a bit more giving you a better look at the basket.
Brandon Paul as only 3-for-12 from the floor and didn't make any of his 5 three point attempts, but he got to the free throw line 10 times.
Then there was Tracy Abrams. Abrams had the best shooting night of any Illini starter on Saturday, and the reason for it was that he just attacked, attacked, attacked and then attacked again. There's a reason he set a career high of 27 points, and it's because he got to the rim for easy shots and also attempted 15 free throws.
Instead of driving and dishing to find a struggling shooter, Abrams just went at the rim and either drew contact or got an easy layup.
A part of me hopes that John Groce spends his Sunday having Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Joe Bertrand watching the film of Tracy, driving the point home to them.
When there's no hope from deep, salvation lies at the rim.