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The nonconference performance left something be desired

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The nonconference slate is complete. What have we learned about the Illini?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Losing to Missouri has left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’m frustrated that Illinois lost a rivalry game, I feel like the team didn’t play very well, and I start thinking, “What if we’re not as good as we think we are?”

But then I calm down, and I remember that we ran Duke off its own floor less than a week ago. And then I realize that Missouri will likely be ranked in the top 25 next week. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad loss.

I’m still experiencing some cognitive dissonance though, with part of me saying, “the team isn’t as good as we think it is — this is a game Illinois should have won,” but the optimist in me says, “Illinois didn’t play its best and still only lost by 3 on the road against a likely top 25 team.” So I turn to the only true source of objectivity: statistics.

For every game a college basketball team plays, Bart Torvik computes a stat called “Game Score.” Game Score is the probability (as a percentage) that a team’s performance would be good enough to beat the average Division I opponent. I like to think of it as a grade for each game; 90 and up is an A, 80 to 90 is a B, 70 to 80 is a C, and so on. Typically, about 20 teams have A or A- averages, a team with a B+ average will be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, and teams with B averages will be on the bubble. So how does Illinois grade out so far?

Well, this Missouri game comes in with an 87. The loss doesn’t feel good, but it grades as a high B. For context, the Iowa game last season — you know, the one where Kofi blocked Luka Garza’s shot and sent the Hawkeyes home crying — graded as an 88. The Illini played roughly as well in a disappointing game this year as in a game we all felt great about last season. I think that says a lot about the strength of this team, and also of the expectations we have this year, but let’s take a look at the bigger picture.

Through six games, the Illini’s average Game Score is just over 88. Two 100’s to start the season (Game Score accounts for opponent strength, so 100 is still an excellent score even against North Carolina A&T and Chicago State), a 73 against Ohio, followed by 86, 99, and 87 against Baylor, Duke, and Missouri. That all adds up to a B+, which sounds about right to me. But I think we can now see why Illini fans are a bit disappointed. A B+ is a good score — good enough to make the Big Dance — but this is a team that expects to get A’s.

But… Illinois took some time to hit its stride last year too. Through six games last season, the Illini’s average game score was 77. Their last six games? An average of 90. There’s still a long way to go this year.

Even though we just have a sample of six games, I do think we’ve learned quite a bit about the Illini so far, but there are plenty of still-unanswered questions too. Let’s take a look at what we know, and what we don’t.

What We Know

Ayo Dosunmu is good. Like, really good. His stats so far: 24.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1 steal per game. He’s scored at least 18 points in every game. And he’s been efficient too, with a true shooting percentage of 62.1%. That’s what an All-American looks like.

(Quick note for those interested in advanced stats: abbreviated TS%, true shooting percentage is essentially total points divided by “true shooting attempts,” and then divided by 2 to convert to the same scale as FG%. And a true shooting attempt is either a field goal attempt or a fouled shooting attempt. So a player with 5 field goal attempts and 3 free throws, with the free throws coming on a three-shot foul, has taken 6 true shooting attempts: 5 field goal attempts plus 1 trip to the line. And if he has 8 points on those 6 attempts, then his TS% is (8/6)/2 = 66.7%.)

Other than Ayo, Andre Curbelo is the best on the team at creating offense. I chose my words carefully here. Curbelo is not the second-best offensive player on the team. At least I don’t think he is. But he is the second-best player at manufacturing offense. A better way to put this: if Ayo is on the bench and the play breaks down, I want the ball in Curbelo’s hands late in the shot clock.

Da’Monte Williams can shoot. He’s 10 for 16 from distance so far, and although that’s a small sample, it’s so much better than his first three seasons that I think it’s safe to say he has significantly improved his jump shot. He still won’t take a ton of shots — his usage percentage is a microscopic 9.7% — but just making defenders stay with him on the perimeter really opens up the offense.

(Yet another advanced stats note: usage percentage (USG%) is the percentage of a team’s offensive possessions that a player “uses” while he’s on the court. A player uses a possession when he ends it, be it with a turnover, a made or missed field goal, or a made or missed free throw. By definition, the average USG% is 20%, as 100% of possessions are divided among the 5 players on the court.)

The three-point shooting is improved from last season. The Illini rank 10th in the country in three-point percentage so far at 44.3%. That number will likely regress, but it is clear that this is a better shooting team than the one that shot 30.3% from behind the arc last year.

Illinois is a great rebounding team. We don’t know how great yet, but the team is in the top 50 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage through six games. Rebounding was a strength last season, and the team has continued to be strong on the boards this year.

The Illini like to get out in transition. Illinois ranks 110th in adjusted tempo so far after ranking just 269th last season. Part of this can be explained by facing terrible defenses for two games, but I expect the Illini to push the pace more than they did a year ago.

Unanswered Questions

Are the Illini turnover-prone, or have we just seen early season sloppiness? Illinois has turned the ball over at least 13 times in every game this season. The team had turnover issues early last season and they were fixed by the spring, so I’m expecting the same to happen again this year. But if the team continues to be sloppy, it will be a big issue in Big Ten play.

Is the team bad at free throw shooting? I’m worried that the answer is yes. Kofi Cockburn is only shooting 58% on 38 attempts this season, after shooting 67% last year. Most other players have made a similar percentage as they did last year, but Cockburn takes such a large share of the team’s free throw attempts that his regression is enough to pull down the team’s percentage from 73% to 68%.

Have the Illini become more foul-prone? From 2019 to 2020, Illinois made a massive jump from 338th in the country to 19th in defensive free throw rate. This improvement was a major factor in the Illini’s overall defensive resurgence. This year though, Illinois has put teams at the charity stripe much more often, ranking just 112th in defensive FTR. I can’t think of any great reason why the team would foul more, but it may just be that the referees’ quick whistles (for both teams) against Missouri make the stats look worse than they should be. Only time will tell.

Can Kofi Cockburn take the next step? Kofi is a great player, just like he was last season. But that’s the problem: he’s the same player he was last season. He hasn’t flashed improved touch in the post, the ability to pass out of a double team, or anything else you would expect a big man to develop over time. He hasn’t really been worse than last year, he just hasn’t been better either. It would be great to see the sophomore improve like he was expected to.

Is Trent Frazier still immune to turnovers? Frazier is coming off of a down year offensively. Last year, he posted career lows in points, assists, and field goal percentage. But he also posted a career low in another statistic: turnovers. Midseason, Brad Underwood made Trent Frazier the primary ball handler, and Frazier was fantastic in the role. He had the lowest turnover percentage (percentage of used possessions that are turnovers) of anybody in the rotation, which is practically unheard of for a point guard. This year though, he has turned the ball over far more often, with 5 against both Baylor and Duke. Let’s hope he can clean it up.

Aside from scoring, what can Adam Miller bring to the table? Scoring is important, and Miller has provided a lot of value as a secondary option in the offense. The problem is that scoring alone isn’t enough if you’re not the best scorer on the team. And Miller isn’t the best scorer on the team. Through six games, Miller has tallied just 12 rebounds, 6 assists, and 5 steals. If he can’t find another role to fill, he might start losing minutes to Andre Curbelo.

Which version of Giorgi Bezhanishvili will we see? Giorgi might be the new Kipper Nichols. There’s Good Giorgi, there’s Bad Giorgi, and there’s not much in between. We saw Good Giorgi against Baylor and Duke, and Bad Giorgi showed up against Ohio and Missouri. I honestly have no clue what to expect.

Who can provide quality minutes beyond the seven-man rotation? Brad Underwood has played seven players consistently so far, subbing in Giorgi and Curbelo in addition to the five starters. But seven players usually isn’t quite enough; it’s best to have at least one more player able to give serviceable minutes in case one of the regulars is in foul trouble or having an off night. Coleman Hawkins and Jacob Grandison have each played a few minutes here and there, but neither one of them has stood out. I think the real answer here is that Austin Hutcherson would be the eighth man, but he’s currently injured with no timetable for return. It looks like either Grandison or Hawkins will need to win the job.

Is this team really good, or is it great? We’ve seen six games, and we can say confidently that Illinois is a very good team. But so far, the team has earned just a B+. 20 (or maybe 21) games remain. It’s time for the Illini to prove they are truly great.