Once there was a West Virginia basketball coach named John. He was a good coach and did well for himself as the coach of the Mountaineers. But he only had a decade or so left in his coaching career, and he took a job in Michigan that had a well-funded, low-expectations basketball program with the highest of ceilings.
John's Michigan experience was an up-and-down affair for the first few years, but then he unearthed some gems on the recruiting trail. John knew he'd coach 'em up and coach 'em up real good, and with a few tinkers of the roster that included adding a legendary Purdue basketball player's son, he had himself a bonafide national championship contender. To opponents, it looked like John's roster was full of toys with alarming offensive gifts.
In 2014, almost a whole year after making the National Championship game, John Beilein's Michigan team still has offensive toys that are flat out ballers.
They rank third in the nation in offensive efficiency, and in the top-25 in the nation in 2 pt., 3 pt., and free throw percentages. If not for one player, the entire team's shooting percentage would be around 41 percent.
Did I mention they can really shoot the ball? Nik Stauskas is 44.4 percent from deep, Caris LeVert 40.2 percent, Zak Irvin 40.9 percent, Derrick Walton 39.2 percent, and Spike Albrecht at 37.3 percent.
You might feel some relief when Glenn Robinson III's 3-point percentage pops up on a stat sheet (26.8 percent), but you'd be wrong to find any solace in that. Robinson, a 6-foot-6 load on the wing, compensates for his poor 3-point shooting by hitting 59.2 (!) percent of his 2-point tries.
"But Thomas," you say. "Every basketball player misses. It can't be all bad." Even if the first shot misses, a number of things conspire against the defensive team in securing the defensive rebound. One thing is Robinson and LeVert's freaky athleticism while vying for the offensive rebound. The other offensive rebound threat is Michigan center Jordan Morgan, who knows Beilein's offense and, especially, the spacing of his offense so well that when a driving two-point shot misses, Morgan is all alone under the rim for the offensive putback. He shoots 68.2 percent from the field mostly on these putbacks.
Lucky for Illinois fans, John Groce is fighting Michigan's offensive fire with a damn high-powered fire extinguisher of a defense. It's held four straight teams under 50 points--including two very good offenses in Michigan State and Minnesota--and forcing turnovers en masse. Stealing the ball 14 times against Michigan State Saturday is something any team can hang their hat on. And with this Illinois team, forcing steals means easy baskets in transition for an offense that is still not all that good (though it's been extremely adequate, a huge improvement over earlier in the conference season).
Even more good news for the Illini offense, Michigan's defense has been mediocre-to-bad in conference. It ranks dead last in effective field goal percentage and 2-point field goal percentage defense. Part of Michigan's woes is the lack of any sort of rim protection. The on-court lineups consist of four guards and Morgan, who is 6-foot-8 and not exactly a leaper/length guy. This bodes well for Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice around the rim if they can get past their defenders.
Stauskas, who any Big-Ten viewer has seen multiple times now, is the probable Big Ten Player of the Year. I'm guessing a platoon of Rice and Kendrick Nunn will log the most time guarding him. Nunn's better at dodging screens, which might give him the edge, though I worry about Rice's quickness in keeping up with LeVert. I know Groce has mixed some zone defense into the gameplan in recent weeks, but unless Robinson is going scorched-earth in the paint, playing zone against such a vaunted 3-point shooting team is a dicey proposition. Plus, man-to-man is the Illini's forte anyways.
Finally, Tuesday night is the last home game of the season and also Senior Night. Jack will be doing a post on Joe Bertand, but I wanted to posit some thoughts for Jon Ekey in this space for the occasion.
It's tough to give a good send-off to a player that's only been part of the program for 10 months. To his credit and the staff's for seeking him out, Ekey has displayed an extraordinary amount of toughness and effort this season. He was a cog of a better team, but you could put Ekey in former Illini Lucas Johnson's place and those late Kruger/early Self teams wouldn't have missed a beat.
Ekey was maligned, perhaps unfairly, for his performances amid the eight-game conference losing streak. It was a lot to ask of him to guard faster guards, stronger forwards while also contributing meaningfully on the offensive end in 30+ minutes of playing time per game. He never complained once, though, and put a workmanlike effort into each game. His rebounding has been and continues to be very valuable, and he was the only reliable outside shooter for months.
Illini fans should fondly remembered for a long time because of his--I'll say it--ballsy 3-pointer out of a timeout with 50 seconds to play against Missouri. That 3-pointer put Illinois up by one point after three minutes of sluggish offense and put the impetus on Mizzou to score multiple times. That was one of the winning plays in the first Braggin' Rights victory for Illinois in four years.
And as all of us longtime Illini know, you go down in the books as an Illini when you make a big play to beat Missouri. For that, I tip my cap to Jon Ekey and his piece of the puzzle in helping Groce build this thing back up.