Let's hope Atlanta is a bit better to us today than it was last week. The last time we saw our heroes take the court they were giving away a game against Georgia Tech for their first loss of the season. Today they're back in Atlanta to take on a team that isn't nearly as good, and on a neutral court.
But we probably shouldn't take anything for granted this afternoon.
First of all, Auburn wasn't exactly good last season when we played them in Chicago, yet we only beat them by a score of 81-79. And given the way we finished that Georgia Tech game, we've proven ourselves capable of a meltdown.
But the good news is that this Auburn team really isn't very good. Yes, they're 4-2, but their schedule isn't exactly anything to take note of thus far. Their first loss was a 111-92 loss to Northwestern State, and the toughest game the Tigers have played came last week against Iowa State. They lost that game 99-70.
Well, the Illini are a lot closer to Iowa State than Northwestern State, but I'm still relatively confident.
As for what kind of team Auburn is, I haven't seen them play, but looking at the numbers it seems to be a two-man show. Guards Chris Denson and KT Harrell seem to be the center of everything, as they average 21.8 and 17.7 points per game respectively. They're also the only two players on the team with a usage rate of higher than 24%. When both are on the court they're taking 57.6% of Auburn's shots between them. However, neither of them are great shooters, at least not from the outside.
What they both like to do is get into the lane and draw fouls.
Denson is drawing 9.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which is astounding. In fact, only one player in the country -- Seton Hall's Sterling Gibbs -- is drawing more. As a result Denson is shooting over 11 free throws per game. To put that in perspective, Denson has attempted 67 free throws this season. He's attempted only 76 shots. To put it further in perspective, the most free throws an Illini has attempted this season is Tracy Abrams at 41, and he's played two more games this season than Denson.
In other words, that zone defense we've seen the Illini using recently? Yeah, we're probably going to see a bit more of that today to try and force Auburn to hit outside shots. Which is exactly what you want to do with a team that's shooting 25% from three.
As for when we have the ball, according to KenPom, Auburn plays zone defense as well, with 7-footer Asauhn Dixon-Tatum in the middle protecting the rim. The big man is averaging 2.2 blocks per game, and his block rate of 10.6% (that means he's blocking 10.6% of the shots opponents take when he's on the court) ranks 40th in the country. So he will present some problems for guys like Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams at the rim, as well as Nnanna Egwu and Jon Ekey in the paint.
However, while Dixon-Tatum is a solid offensive rebounder, he hasn't been nearly as strong on the defensive end. In fact, as a team Auburn hasn't really be great on the glass, and when you consider the level of competition (the Tigers have played the 341st toughest schedule in the country) you'd think their average numbers are actually a bit inflated. But, you know, it's not so easy to rebound consistently out of the zone, so that no doubt has something to do with it.
But hitting threes could be a key for the Illini today. As you'd expect from a team that plays a lot of zone, Auburn's opponents are shooting threes nearly 40% of the time, and they're hitting 40.1% of those threes. In other words, they want you to take those threes, but they really aren't very good at defending the three point line.
So this afternoon could be a good time for Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand in the corners as the shots will likely be there.
In the end it'll come down to how we play on the offensive end. We've seen through the first eight games that we're pretty damn solid on the defensive end, and I don't expect that to change much this afternoon. However, we've been a poor shooting team just about all year, and going against a zone team today means we're going to have to be better.
It sound so ridiculously simple, but it's simply true today. If we hit our shots we shouldn't have much of a problem beating this team today. If we don't, it'll be a rough go.