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How Analytics Helped Make Illinois a Title Contender

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Making shots matters. Taking the right shots matters, too.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

“Analytics play a big part of what we do.”

That’s Brad Underwood talking, all the way back at his introductory press conference four years ago. Underwood laid out his vision for Illinois Basketball at that press conference. Illinois Basketball would be tough. It would play up-tempo. It would have a winning culture. We’ve seen Underwood’s vision come to fruition before our eyes during his time in Champaign. But an oft-overlooked part of that vision was to embrace analytics, and analytics are a big reason Illinois is contending for a national championship.

Analytics is a dirty word for a lot of basketball fans. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Analytics have killed the mid-range jumper! It’s a lost art in today’s game.” While it is true that analytics have contributed to the decline of mid-range jumpers, that’s not what analytics is really about. At its core, analytics just says one thing: be efficient. It’s a beautifully simple idea; you want to score as many points as possible each possession on offense, and you want to limit your opponent to as few points as possible each possession on defense. The key, of course, is that it’s about how many points you score each possession on average. A three-point attempt might go in and score 3 points, but a wide open dunk will almost certainly score 2 points. Even if the three is taken by a 50% three-point shooter (meaning it would score 1.5 points on average), it’s still not as good of a shot as the dunk, even though it could score more points. But that’s the crux of the issue with mid-range jumpers — they’re not terribly likely to go in, and they’re only worth 2 points even if they do go in. In general, mid-range jumpers are just less efficient than other shots. Now, that’s not true for every player. Duke’s Matthew Hurt makes 57% of his long twos, for example. Coach K shouldn’t tell Hurt to stop taking pull-up jumpers — it’s an efficient shot for him! But Hurt is an exception, not the rule.

Most of the time, taking fewer mid-range jumpers and more layups and threes will make a team more efficient, and the more efficient a team is, the more it will win. Brad Underwood understands this, and his belief in analytics has shown up on both ends of the court this season.

Offense

Illinois has the 7th-best offense in the country this year (on KenPom), and there are a lot of reasons for this. The biggest is probably just that Illinois is an incredibly talented team.

We can see the talent when we look at Illinois’ shot chart (from CBB Analytics). The Illini make more shots than average from almost every area of the floor, and they are especially good at making shots around the rim. Illinois ranks 11th among power conference teams in field goal percentage within the restricted area, and it is one of just 14 power conference teams to make at least 72% of those shots.

Because of his team’s skillset, and because those shots are the most efficient anyway, Underwood had a novel idea: they should take a lot of layups and dunks. Illinois takes 31.7% of its shots from within four feet, second only to Pittsburgh among power conference teams.

Now, if the strategy of “take lots of layups and dunks” seems obvious, it’s because it is. And yet, many college basketball coaches haven’t seemed to figure it out. The average college basketball team takes about 25% of its field goal attempts from the restricted area. But out of those 14 power conference teams that make at least 72% of their close twos, 11 of them take fewer layups than average, and two of the other three (Duke and Florida) still take under 26% of their field goal attempts from close range. And then there’s Illinois, taking almost a third (31.7%) of its shots close to the rim.

To be fair, part of this is surely because Illinois has a lot of talent. When you have guards like Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo that can get to the rim seemingly at will, it’s no surprise that you’ll take a lot of layups. Talent doesn’t just help a team make shots; it helps them get better shots, too.

But that doesn’t seem to explain why Illinois gets so many shots at the rim. Three of the 14 power conference teams that make the highest percentage of their layups are Baylor, Michigan, and Virginia, some of the most talented teams in the country. Still, all three of them take fewer shots than average from the restricted area. It appears as though Illinois taking lots of close twos isn’t just because of talent — it’s a conscious decision by the coaching staff to emphasize the importance of taking efficient shots and to build an offense that will generate those efficient shots. That’s not to say Illinois’ shot selection is perfect. I’d like it if Ayo would take fewer jumpers one dribble in from the three-point line, for example. But it’s better than most, and it’s a big reason Illinois’ offense is one of the best in the country.

Defense

On defense, the story is largely the same, just even better. The Illini have plenty of talented defenders, so they force misses from all over the floor.

That shot chart is what a very good defense looks like. But let me show you what a great defense looks like.

This chart shows the areas of the court where Illinois opponents’ take their shots. Not only is Illinois great at defending almost every area of the court, but it also forces opponents to take shots from the least valuable areas of the court. Generally speaking, shots at the rim are most efficient, followed by corner threes, above the break threes, shots in the paint, and then mid-range jumpers. Oh look, that’s also the order of the five areas on the court from fewest attempts allowed by Illinois to most attempts allowed by Illinois, relative to the Division I average (most blue to most red).

Among power conference teams, Illinois forces opponents to take more shots from the mid-range than everyone but Texas Tech. Illinois also prevents teams from getting easy catch-and-shoot threes in the corner, as Michigan is the only power conference team to allow fewer corner threes than Illinois. All told, Illinois is the only power conference team whose opponents took more than 20% of their field goal attempts from the mid-range and fewer than 8% from the corners, and Illinois easily clears both marks at 21.4% and 5.4%, respectively. Illinois clearly forces opponents into bad looks, but we haven’t even mentioned yet that Illinois is one of just two Big Ten teams (Michigan) to allow fewer than 20% of field goal attempts to come from the restricted area. When you force more misses than average from almost everywhere and you force lots of shots from the least valuable areas of the court, you end up with the 6th-best defense in the country (per Kenpom).

It’s natural to ask though, why do Illinois’ opponents take such bad shots? After all, its opponents are the ones who actually decide to shoot the ball. How can Illinois’ defense have such a great effect on the shots its opponents take? That’s a great question, and there’s not a simple answer, but there are a few reasons we can point to.

The first is the presence of Kofi Cockburn. When Kofi is in the game, opposing ball handlers often opt for a floater or a pull-up jumper rather than challenge him at the rim. Kofi may not be an elite shot blocker, but he often prevents opponents from taking layups in the first place.

The second reason is that Illinois’ guards just don’t get beat off the dribble very much. Trent Frazier was just named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team, and Da’Monte Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, Jacob Grandison, and Adam Miller are all plus defenders. It’s hard to get a shot at the rim when you have to get past one of those guys first.

The third reason, and this is my favorite, is that Illinois dares its opponents to take long twos, and its opponents often oblige. There are a couple ways that defenders do this. The first is by aggressively closing out to the three-point line, especially in the corners. Illinois’ other defenders will stay home on their man or in the paint and encourage the ball handler to pull up for a long two. Even for good shooters, a pull up 18-footer is almost always an inefficient shot, and it’s certainly less efficient than an open three. The other way is that Illinois’ defenders often sag off of players that catch the ball in the mid-range. A lot of teams run offensive actions through their big man above the elbow, and when that happens, his defender will sag down into the paint, tempting the opposing center to shoot. Illinois is perfectly fine with letting the big man take that jumper, and if he doesn’t pull the trigger, his defender is already in a good position to defend the paint.

Daring opponents to take bad shots is a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t just work in theory — it actually plays out in games too. Let’s look at the win over Indiana.

In that game, Indiana made two-thirds of its attempts at the rim and half of its threes. With that knowledge alone, you’d think Indiana would probably win the game. But Indiana only took 20 layups and threes, while 34 of its shots came from between the restricted area and the three-point line. In a game that was decided in overtime, Illinois forcing the Hoosiers into so many mid-range jumpers was the difference between a win and a loss.

Conclusion

We’ve seen how important taking the right shots can be for both an offense and a defense, but I don’t want to imply that shot selection is everything. Forcing bad shots can only help you so much if you can’t secure the rebound after the miss. And if you turn the ball over too often on offense, taking a mid-range jumper isn’t the worst thing; taking a bad shot is better than not getting a shot off at all. Besides, taking the right shots only gets you so far if your players aren’t talented enough to make them.

But having talent only gets you so far if you’re not taking the right shots, too. Just ask John Calipari, whose Kentucky team has the top freshman class in the country but will still miss the NCAA Tournament in large part because they take the third-most mid-range jumpers of any power conference team. Shot selection matters.

Brad Underwood knows this. He knew it when he first came to Illinois, and he knows it now. He’s turned Illinois Basketball into a team that doesn’t shy away from analytics, but embraces them. That just might win Illinois a national championship.