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Michigan State v Illinois

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Illinois embraced analytics — and passed up Michigan State

Underwood has been more willing to change than Izzo.

Happy Thursday, Illinois Land!

Let’s hit the way-back machine, to when Brad Underwood first arrived in Champaign seven years ago. The two programs — and head coaches — that face off on Saturday in East Lansing were not only conference foes, but the programs that each man led were not even in the same stratosphere.

Tom Izzo is already a Hall of Famer. He just collected his 700th win. He has seven Final Fours and 15 Sweet Sixteens since taking over Michigan State in the 1995.

There’s no arguing Izzo’s overall success at Michigan State. Objectively, his teams haven’t been as good the past handful of years. More on that in a bit.

Let’s take a look at Tom Izzo and Brad Underwood, and look at the patterns that have changed the trajectories of the two programs since Underwood showed up.

Tom Izzo had Michigan State absolutely rolling. His team went to the Final Four in 2019.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois
Izzo begs for a call in Champaign. He probably got it.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first two years at the helm, Izzo and his Spartans have not missed a single tournament that was played. That streak appears to be in jeopardy as we approach Selection Sunday on March 17.

In 2017-18 and 2018-19 combined, State crushed everyone.

  • Overall: 62-12 (.838)
  • Big Ten: 32-6 (.842).

These years overlapped the first two for Brad Underwood in Champaign.

Izzo has openly, and quite famously I might add, been a staunch critic of analytics calling them “phony” at a press conference in a recent press conference.

Here’s the full quote:

“I hate analytics, because they’re phony. Sooner or later, you look in a guy’s heart, you look in a guy’s eye, and then you find out about a guy. Everyone in the NBA and college now, they want analytics. Analytics, what does analytics mean here? Does that mean we won the game? Analytics are crap.”

Izzo was roundly criticized for making these comments on Jan. 9, after a 14-point loss to Northwestern. It’s not quite old man yelling at clouds, but comparisons can be drawn. Izzo is now 68.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois
BU and Izzo sharing a laugh before a game in Champaign.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

To tie a bow on the Michigan State side of things, their metrics for this season say they’re much better than the record would indicate.

  • Record: 14-9, 7th in Big Ten standings at 6-6
  • KenPom: 19th overall, Offense (33) and Defense (20)
  • NET Ranking: 24th overall

In bygone times, Michigan State would have little chance to make the field. As analytics were introduced and the selection process tweaked, Izzo and his program have been rescued by the very thing that he despises.

Case in point: The 2021 NCAA Tournament included Michigan State at 15-13 (.536).

Illinois was in the tank when Underwood arrived, and was in the midst of a long stretch of not making the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois
BU stretching the limits of this Oxford button down. He has gotten both himself and his program into shape.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

For context purposes, here’s what Underwood did his first two seasons in Champaign:

  • Overall: 26-39 (.446)
  • Big Ten: 11-27 (.289)

BU arguably had the worst two years in program history, setting a record for most losses in his second season with 22. Illinois played up-the-line (contesting every pass with the top goal of forcing turnovers) in his first two seasons.

We see what those results were. Underwood did, too. He made a bevy of adjustments and turned his ear to his staff to fix the problem.

Analytics saved the Illinois program, along with better players, of course.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Ty Rodgers is the type of winning player Underwood is currently targeting. He’s a great player all-around but not a great shooter. He fits in and gets in.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s compare Underwood’s second year (2019) with the current team and point out key differences.

  • 2019: KenPom rank of 84 (83rd in offense and 108 in defense). Illinois was 59th in steal percentage on defense and 31st in non-steal turnovers. They were also 308th in two-point defense at a stunning 53.6%.
  • 2024: KenPom rank of 9 (7th on offense and 31st on defense). Illinois is currently 363rd in steal percentage on defense and 327th in non-steal turnovers. The Illini are currently 14th in two-point defense at 44.5%.

In short, Illinois used to force a bevy of turnovers and put pressure on the other team’s half-court offense, but was routinely beaten with backdoor layups, as the Illini overplayed the passing lanes.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Rodgers with the block on Nebraska guard/forward Brice Williams.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the Illini barely contest a pass that is a throw away from the bucket. They rarely force a turnover. They attempt to run the other team off the three-point line and force them into “tough twos.” Other teams cannot sustainably make mid-range pull-ups and floaters over the entirety of the game.

On offense, Underwood and his staff have employed matchup-driven, isolation play in the half court. They force the other team to guard them in space, one-on-one. The exploitation of matchups is the scheme, not the other way around.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State
Domask receiving an entry pass in the mid-post, his favorite position to initiate offense.
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Underwood labeled this Booty Ball last season, when Jalen Pickett of Penn State backed down smaller guards to score at will.

Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg called the offensive scheme of Illinois “straight out of the NBA” playbook. He’s not wrong.

We have spent this column talking about analytics and metrics and how the Illini have made adjustments and Michigan State hasn’t. Let’s look at recent history and see how it shakes out.

Now, let’s take a look at the last 4.5 seasons, and see the trajectories and glidepath of each team overall, and in conference play.

  • Michigan State: 95-57 (.625) and 51-40 (.560)
  • Illinois: 104-42 (.712) and 62-28 (.689)

It looks like the programs have completely changed spots overall, and in the conference landscape.

Is this ALL DUE to analytics? Certainly not. Illinois has had much better players the last 4.5 seasons.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
The squad enjoys a road win at Ohio State on Feb. 1.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Did Michigan State all of a sudden get no players in recruiting and the cupboard is bare and Izzo has little chance to compete at a high level? Certainly not.

The overall point is simple. Illinois and Underwood have embraced advanced thinking and it has led to more on-court success. More on-court success leads to getting better players. The cycle continues until the winning stops.

Underwood has to show he can get his team over the finish line in the NCAA Tournament. The second weekend is a minimum ending point for his team in 2024. The streak of not going to the Sweet 16 has now been extended to 19 years.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois
The Dynamic Duo can lead the Illini to the promised. Time to go win some tournament games.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Underwood has a team that can get all the way to Phoenix in the Final Four.

To be fair, Underwood will never catch, or even approach, the NCAA Tournament success that Izzo has enjoyed over his long, successful career.

One thing is certain. Underwood and his program have surpassed Michigan State and the Spartans in the regular season. But fans don’t remember that.

It’s time for Underwood to win some games when all of the chips are down.

Please take The Scientific Poll.


What seed will Illinois get in the NCAA Tournament?

  • 0%
    No. 1
    (12 votes)
  • 46%
    No. 2 or No. 3
    (638 votes)
  • 42%
    No. 4
    (578 votes)
  • 6%
    No. 5
    (85 votes)
  • 3%
    No. 6 or worse
    (46 votes)
1359 votes total Vote Now

This is embracing analytics. This is a Michigan State rematch. This is crunch time.

This is Illinois basketball.