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Grading out Illinois’ non-conference performance

This has been Brad Underwood’s best Illini team through the non-conference slate.

X // @IlliniMBB

We’re a little over one-third of the way through the season, with one more non-conference game against Fairleigh Dickinson on Friday. Time to grade the non-conference results.

The Illini started the season ranked 25th in the AP poll, and 20th in Kenpom. Today they sit at 11th in the AP poll, and 9th in Kenpom. It’s fair to say the Illini have exceeded expectations.

Not only that, but the results indicate that this has been Brad Underwood’s most successful non-conference season as the head coach at Illinois. The Illini have not seen an AP poll ranking this high at the end of December since the 2012-13 season. That team was led by Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, who started out the season going 12-0. They peaked at No. 10 in the AP poll on Dec. 17, 2012.

Illinois v Miami Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The only two blemishes on the current team’s record are against the current AP No. 10 (Marquette) and No. 6 (Tennessee) teams. The Illini had chances to win both of those games down the stretch, a promising sight.

And this team isn’t missing a signature win either. They took down FAU (currently No. 7 in the AP poll) behind stellar performances from Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask. In case you missed it, FAU just beat No. 4 Arizona this past weekend.

Sure, the schedule included six teams outside the top 100 in Kenpom. But for context, Houston (ranked No. 1 in Kenpom) has played eight teams outside the top 100.

And the most recent win against Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game showed complete domination from start to finish. Quincy Guerrier continued his hot scoring stretch, averaging nearly 22 points during the last three games.

Statistics that stand out (unless otherwise noted, sourced from Kenpom):

Illinois continues to force “tough twos,” which has been a common phrase heard in Brad Underwood press conferences over the last few years. The Illini finished each of the last three seasons ranked in the top-20 for two-point percentage defense. This year they rank No. 4 in the country allowing opposing teams to shoot just 41.2% on two point attempts (the D-1 average is 50.1%). Three point defense is great as well, allowing opponents to shoot 28.3%. which ranks 23rd in the nation.

Underwood rolls out some tall lineups, which certainly helps when closing out on shooters. Illinois’ average height ranks 11th in the nation, which contributes to opponents shooting poorly from the field. To take that a step further, the Illini’s shooting guard height ranks tops in the nation, and point guard height ranks third in the nation.¹

This height has also led to a relentless rebounding team. The Illini rank first in rebounds per game with 45.4. They also rank 12th in the nation for rebounding margin, outrebounding opponents by 11 boards per game. Here’s a look at the starting lineup’s rebounds per game:

Experience has played a big factor in the early part of the season as well. Coach Underwood decided to focus his offseason transfer portal efforts on veterans who have plenty of Division I minutes under their belt (Guerrier, Domask, & Harmon). The Illini rank 15th in experience per Kenpom.²

X // @IlliniMBB

The Illini look to finish out the non-conference schedule on a high note as they host Fairleigh Dickinson on Friday at 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network. They’ll then kick off the New Year welcoming Northwestern to the State Farm Center on Jan. 2 before a tough road test against Purdue on Jan. 5.

¹ Per Kenpom: To calculate the positional height data, the minutes played for each team are ordered by height. Thus the 20% of minutes played by the tallest players are assumed to be center minutes, the next 20% are assumed to be power forward minutes, etc.

² Per Kenpom: The experience value is in terms of years of college experience where a player’s eligibility class is assumed to determine this. For the purposes of the calculation, a freshman has zero years of experience, a sophomore has one year of experience, etc. The experience calculation weights the experience of each player on the roster based on minutes played. Players that have played less than 10% of their team’s minutes are not included.