The calendar has rolled over to February, which has been a relief to Illinois Fighting Illini basketball fans lately. The program has a recent track record of having January be its worst month record-wise and seeing better results in February. The overall record of this team is of course dragged down by its far-below-average 4-9 record for November and December, but the data show that this team’s January result tracks closely to the average January for Illinois over the last 10 years.
Over the past 10 seasons (including this one), Illinois averaged 2.8 wins and 5.1 losses every January, winning about 35.4% of games. This jumped to roughly 50% in February*; naturally, as the Big Ten schedule is normally much tougher than the non-conference schedule, this was still a departure from the 70.7 winning percentage Illinois enjoyed in November and December.
*Data from 2008-09 season added to February average to replace nonexistent 2018-19 data
As we all know, this season started out with Illinois 4-9 heading into January. This graph shows just how much of a statistical anomaly this was; the wins, losses and win percentages were more than two standard deviations away from the 10-year mean. Using a normal distribution, November and December of this season was very slightly above a one percentile performance.
However, assessing January the same way shows that Illinois was within 0.75 standard deviations of its 10-year average; this year was roughly a 25 percentile performance, which is statistically within the same realm as the average.
A second examination using only the seasons since Bruce Weber’s departure; for these seasons, Illinois still turned in roughly a 3 percentile performance, nearly two standard deviations from the mean. January shows a different story: in the post-Weber years, the Fighting Illini average 2.3 wins and 5.7 losses, good for a 0.285 win rate. This year, therefore, falls fairly close to the mean; win percentage-wise, it was a 37 percentile performance.
The last time Illinois won more than they lost in January was 2012, which was of course followed by a 1-6 February and the departure of Bruce Weber. This was also the last time Illinois won fewer games in February than in January*, and since this season Illinois is roughly 0.500 in the second month of the year.
*Illinois has had the same number of wins in Jan/Feb twice in that time frame; in 2015, they went 4-4 and 4-3 respectively, while last year they followed a 2-6 January with a 2-7 February
What Does This Mean?
Set aside advanced gameplay statistics, roster building/player development and coaching intangibles and just look at the wins and losses.
Illinois had its worst Nov./Dec. run in a long time by an incredible margin and no Illinois season in recent memory has started like that. Their January record, however, is unremarkable. If you discard the first two months of the season and just judge them by January, their record is close to average.
In other words, after triple-bogeying November and December, Illinois shot par in January, and not only is a better February possible, but in fact it happens more often than not.
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