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Illinois Basketball might just be pretty good

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With conference season resuming, what have we learned about the Illini so far?

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illini basketball non-conference season is now officially over, and Illinois is set to resume conference play tonight at Minnesota. Twelve games in, where does Illinois stand?

The short answer: Illinois is pretty good, I think?

But… it’s hard to really know. Between injuries to Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier, (non-COVID) sickness for Jacob Grandison and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, and Kofi Cockburn’s suspension, Illinois has only played two games at what could be called “full strength.” And even in those two games, freshman Luke Goode was out with back spasms. Plus, Austin Hutcherson is out for the season, so full strength looks different now than it did at the beginning of the year. Not many college basketball teams have been left unscathed with COVID once again rearing its ugly head, but you would be hard-pressed to find a team that has had as little in-season continuity as Illinois.

Before the season started, I set 11-2 as a reasonable expectation for what Illinois’ record would look like at this time of year.

The Illini currently sit at 9-3 — let’s call it 10-3 with the Florida A&M game — which I would call a bit disappointing without context. But with context? It’s hard for me to be too upset.

Before I get into that though, I should note that Illinois’ schedule so far has been worse than we thought it would be. First, when I set the expectation at 11-2, I was assuming that Illinois would probably beat Cincinnati at the Hall of Fame Classic and play Arkansas (oops). Instead, Illinois lost to Cincy and played Bruce Weber’s Kansas State, who, with all due respect, is worse than the Razorbacks. In addition, a few of Illinois’ toughest opponents have been worse than originally expected; Missouri was supposed to be bad but instead it’s really bad, Rutgers has been disappointing outside of its upset over Purdue, and Notre Dame is not the tournament team it was supposed to be. Arizona’s breakout into a top-10 team helps bolster the schedule, but even still, Illinois’ 10-3 record (I’m acting like we beat Florida A&M, remember?) looks worse on the surface than I would have thought two months ago.

The key phrase here being “on the surface.” Beneath the surface… well, I think Illinois is at least as good as I expected entering the season. Let’s just look at the three losses. First was the loss to Marquette. The Golden Eagles, now ranked 87th in KenPom, are a team you would like to beat, but Illinois lost by just one… on the road… without Kofi Cockburn. That’s not a bad loss. Now, there’s no excusing the loss to Cincinnati — losing by 20 to a mediocre team while (nearly) fully healthy is unacceptable no matter how you slice it. The final loss to Arizona though wasn’t bad either. Arizona is a clear top-10 team and Illinois hung with the Wildcats for 39 minutes before they pulled away at the end; there’s no shame in that.

It would be unfair of me to bring up the “good losses” without bringing up the “bad wins,” and the UTRGV game was a textbook example of a bad win. Even missing three starters, struggling to beat a low major is a poor performance.

But aside from those four games, I think everything else falls under the category of “good wins.” What has me most optimistic though, is Illinois’ recent performance. After a rough stretch in November with new players injured or sick seemingly every game, Illinois hit its stride in December when it got healthy (outside of Curbelo, of course). Overall, Illinois has played like the 20th best team in the country this season per BartTorvik (after taking out the preseason adjustment), and that’s despite Cockburn, Curbelo, Frazier, and Grandison all missing time. All things considered, when Curbelo finally comes back, I think I would say that 20th in the country is the floor for this team.

Suffice to say, I feel pretty good about the Illini. However, even almost halfway through the season, I still have a lot of questions about this team. And with Illinois’ recent practice schedule disrupted by 10 players testing positive for COVID, we still might not have many answers for a few more weeks. Even so, let’s take a look at what we know about Illinois and what still needs to be answered.

What We Know

Kofi is a monster. He’s still an All-American, and he can kinda pass now too. You know that, moving on.

Illinois is a great three-point shooting team. And it might just be the best shooting team in the country. Illinois ranks ninth in college basketball and fourth among power conference teams in three-point percentage at 39.7%. But Illinois doesn’t just make a high percentage of its threes — it also attempts a lot of threes. 44.6% of Illinois’ field goal attempts have come from behind the arc this season.

North Carolina has a slightly better three-point percentage than Illinois at 40%, but it doesn’t get as much value from outside shooting because it only takes a third of its shots from long range. In fact, no power conference team takes more threes than Illinois and also makes a higher percentage of them. Kofi dominates the paint, and if defenses sell out to stop him, Illinois beats them from deep.

Offensive rebounding is a major strength. Illinois’ offensive rebounding percentage of 41.6% currently ranks second in the country, trailing only Kentucky. Kofi Cockburn plays a big role in that, of course, but Jacob Grandison and Coleman Hawkins have chipped in on the offensive glass as well. Combine Kofi in the post, great three-point shooting, and elite offensive rebounding, and you get one of the best offenses in the country.

Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison are officially Dudes. When Plummer arrived on campus this summer he was billed as a knockdown shooter, and he has lived up to that and then some. He’s shooting 45% from three on nearly 8 attempts per game; nobody in the country has matched Plummer’s efficiency and volume. Combine that with a surprising proficiency in attacking closeouts and he’s pretty clearly Illinois’ second-best scorer, putting up at least 19 points in his last eight games.

Plummer’s not the only Illini having a breakout season though — Jacob Grandison has been a revelation as well. Grandison is Illinois’ third-leading scorer this year at 12.8 points per game and his 51% shooting behind the arc has actually been even more efficient than Plummer, albeit on fewer attempts. Even with Curbelo still out, Plummer and Grandison, along with Cockburn and Frazier, have given Illinois a four-headed scoring monster.

Unanswered Questions

Can the Illini fix their turnover problem? There’s only one real flaw with Illinois’ offense, but it’s a big one: turnovers. Illinois currently ranks 300th in the country in turnover rate, and even if the rest of your offense is great, giving away so many possessions really puts a ceiling on how good you can be. It remains to be seen if Illinois can take better care of the ball, but I’m optimistic for two reasons.

First, Illinois has had similar issues in non-conference play in each of the past two seasons, and both times it cleaned up the sloppiness once the team started to gel and play more conservative Big Ten defenses. I think it’s reasonable to expect a similar trend this time around.

Secondly, Andre Curbelo should be back at some point to give Illinois a second ball-handler. Currently, Trent Frazier is the only player in the rotation with much experience at point guard and it shows. In Curbelo’s absence, guys like Plummer and Da’Monte Williams have been asked to initiate the offense, and, despite all of their strengths, that’s just not the role you want those guys in. Even though Curbelo turns the ball over a lot, I think his return could actually mitigate some of the turnover issues because it would give Illinois another true ball-handler and put other players back in roles they’re more comfortable in.

What happened to the defensive rebounding? Ever since Brad Underwood ditched his pressure defense with the arrival of Kofi Cockburn, Illinois has been a great defensive rebounding team, and that was especially true last season (11th in the country). This year, however, Illinois’ defensive rebounding has been just okay, ranking 104th by percentage.

I’m not sure why there’s been such a dropoff — losing Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili hurts but it shouldn’t tank the rebounding that much — but it’s the one big difference between last season’s seventh-ranked defense and this season 38th-ranked one (per KenPom). Underwood better figure it out.

What will the rotation look like when Curbelo comes back? I am certainly not going to argue that Illinois is better without Curbelo, and I firmly believe that the best version of this team has Andre Curbelo on it. With that being said, Illinois has found a groove while Curbelo has been hurt, and I do fear that inserting him back into the lineup will be a bit clunky at first.

Right now, Illinois has a clear preferred five-man lineup to start and finish games: Frazier, Plummer, Grandison, Williams, and Cockburn. So whose spot does Curbelo take?

At the beginning of the season I would have said Plummer, but that was before we knew just how much of an offensive weapon he would be. The answer might be Da’Monte Williams, but that would require Curbelo, Frazier, and Plummer to be on the floor at the same time. That would work offensively, but Underwood hasn’t played this lineup yet and I’m skeptical that he would because of its size limitations on defense. One option is to bring Curbelo off the bench and have him provide a spark as the sixth man. I actually kind of like this idea, but it only answers the question of who will start games, not close them.

Of course, the real answer might be some combination of these options in different games. I’m just glad Brad Underwood makes these decisions instead of me.

Which version of Coleman Hawkins will we get? As he was dominating the first half of the Arkansas State game, I tweeted “Coleman Hawkins is everything I ever wanted Giorgi to be.” That is not to say that Hawkins and Giorgi are similar players; Giorgi was a better post scorer and post entry passer and Hawkins is a better ball-handler and perimeter defender, among other differences. Rather, the Coleman Hawkins we saw in the ASU game — hustle, passing, shot-blocking, a mismatch no matter who is guarding him — was what I wanted Giorgi to be. Unfortunately, Hawkins also has Giorgi’s same inconsistency, and recently he has struggled to stay on the floor. Coleman Hawkins can be a real ceiling-raiser for Illinois, but only if he shows up.

Who will win the backup center minutes? When Omar Payne transferred, he was the presumptive starting center with Kofi Cockburn leaving for the NBA Draft. Once Cockburn announced his return though, it was assumed that Payne would cleanly slide into the backup center role. That… hasn’t happened. Payne has struggled mightily in limited minutes off the bench, and he has platooned as backup center with Ben Bosmans-Verdonk so far. Unsurprisingly, Bosmans-Verdonk hasn’t been very effective either. Where Payne provides next to nothing offensively, Bosmans-Verdonk doesn’t give much in the way of rim protection. It’s possible Underwood will continue to mix and match the two depending on matchups, but I’m guessing that one of them will settle in as the primary backup by the time the month ends.

Which, if any, of the freshmen will get real minutes in Big Ten play? When Curbelo gets back, he will solidify an eight-man rotation alongside Frazier, Plummer, Grandison, Williams, Hawkins, Cockburn, and [insert backup center here]. In the meantime, there are plenty of minutes for one of Luke Goode, RJ Melendez, or Brandin Podziemski, all of whom have had stretches with more playing time than the others. I personally think that Melendez is the best prospect of the three, but if I had to pick, I would guess that Goode will get the most minutes for the remainder of the season. Regardless, having too many good players is a great problem to have.

Will Illinois reach its ceiling? We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from the Illini this season: dominating Rutgers, the 19-0 run against Arizona, setting the single-game program record for threes. And all of those moments have come despite not playing at full strength. I really do believe that Illinois has a one-seed ceiling just like last year. Take a team that’s already rolling, figure out some of the issues above, and add Andre Curbelo? That version of Illinois can beat anyone in the country. The question is not how high Illinois’ ceiling is, but whether it will reach it.