Let's take a look at Illinois' first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
You know, it figures that after spending weeks wondering who the Illini would find themselves facing in the NCAA Tournament, they're paired with a team that I don't know a whole hell of a lot about. That's because the last time I saw Colorado play basketball was when it was losing to Baylor in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament.
Thanks a lot, Pac-12 Network. Your biggest enemy may be Direct TV, but I have Comcast and Comcast isn't showing that shit here.
So all I really have to go on at this point is the numbers, and looking at KenPom you do get a decent sense of what kind of team this is.
Where I'd like to start is Colorado's size. They don't have a ton of it. Of the Buffaloes who see a lot of time in the regular rotation only Josh Scott checks in at taller than 6'7. Scott is 6'10 and while that is tall, the freshman is only listed at 215 pounds. So he's not really a banger and that's the kind of guy I think Nnanna Egwu can match up pretty well with.
This is also a team that appears to go only about eight players deep in its rotation, with the star being Spencer Dinwiddie. The 6'5 sophomore leads Colorado in scoring (15.6) and assists (3.0) while playing 33 minutes a game. He and fellow guard Askia Booker are the two players this offense runs through, and it's an offense that doesn't seem to be an up-tempo offense.
According to KenPom Colorado's tempo is ranked 215th in the country. By comparison the Illini are ranked 139th. So Colorado appears to be a team that relies more on its halfcourt offense than getting out on the break. However, when you look further you see the Buffaloes aren't exactly a collection of snipers.
As a team Colorado shot 43.6% from the floor this season with an eFG% of 48.6%, a percentage that's good enough for 164th nationally, which is pretty much middle-of-the-road. However, both of those numbers are better than what the Illini did (41.6% and 48.2% respectively). The biggest difference is that the Illini took 815 threes this season. Colorado took only 498, and their 3PA/FGA ratio was low enough to rank 271st in the country.
So if it's not a great shooting team that doesn't rely on the three often, what does that tell us?
Well, Colorado's free throw rate is pretty damn good. It's at 41.4%, which isn't elite, but it's good for 41st nationally. Spencer Dinwiddie's personal free throw rate is at 77%, as he's averaging 7.34 free throw attempts per game and shooting 82.6% at the charity stripe. Compare those numbers to Brandon Paul, who gets to the free throw line more often than any other Illini. Paul's free throw rate is only 45.9% and he's shooting 5.76 free throws a game.
So Colorado's strategy seems to be to have Dinwiddie penetrate the lane and look to get to the foul line, or for an open shooter if one is available. So, without looking at any tape, I feel like John Groce may look to employ a zone quite a bit in this first matchup. That would make it much harder for Dinwiddie to penetrate and force a team that's not a great jump-shooting team to beat us with the jump-shot.
Of course, the problem with zone is it hurts your rebounding, but the Illini haven't been a good rebounding team all season anyway, and Colorado's not great at it either. The Buffs aren't bad, but their leading rebounder is 6'7 Andre Roberson who is pulling down an impressive 11.3 boards per game. However, that's twice as many boards as Josh Scott's 5.5 per game, and he checks in second.
Finally, the one thing that needs to be mentioned about Colorado, and one thing that I think certainly plays to Illinois' benefit is Colorado's youth. The average experience of this Colorado roster is 1.16 years and that ranks 310th in the nation. Sabatino Chen is the only senior on the roster, and he's not exactly a major contributor. Then Andre Roberson is the only junior on the team that is considered a significant contributor.
So it's possible that Colorado's lack of experience could play a factor in a tournament game, as nerves are common. Combine that with the fact that the Buffaloes aren't a good free throw shooting team, and that plays further into Illinois' hands.
Of course, while Illinois is older, it's not as if it has a ton of tournament experience either.