by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Over the first two months of the season, Illinois ripped off 12 consecutive wins, including a neutral court win over Butler and a massive road triumph at Gonzaga. New coach John Groce has implemented an up-tempo offense, reinvigorated once-inefficient chucker Brandon Paul and instilled the same players who quit on Bruce Weber last season with newfound energy and optimism. The Illini were flat balling.
There was a lingering sense that none of it was very sustainable, primarily because Illinois’ offense relied so heavily on the three-point shot. That kind of thing can push you through a 12-game winning streak, but three-point accuracy tends to wax and wane over the course of the season. Illinois lost four of its next six games, two of them on the road against eminently beatable opponents (Purdue, Wisconsin). In both occasions, to the great surprise of no one, the Illini didn’t shoot it all that well from beyond the arc (0.385 percent at Purdue; 0.143 percent at Wisconsin). Those aren’t terrible losses; the Big Ten road is one traveled with extreme caution. Few venues offer safe passage.
So here stands Illinois, licking its wounds after a two-game losing streak, waiting to obliterate its state rival, Northwestern, and reinforce its hoops dominance in the Land of Lincoln rivalry under Groce. Assembly Hall is one of the fiercest arenas in the Big Ten. Northwestern will not be greeted with comfort.
Three Players To Watch
Brandon Paul (senior, guard)
Of all the changes wrought by Groce’s leadership, maybe the most significant is Paul’s senior year transformation. It’s rare to see a player make his biggest improvements between junior and senior year, but Paul – empowered by Groce’s free-flowing offense, a welcoming change of pace from Weber’s old system – is playing the best offensive basketball of his career. He’s using more possessions and taking more shots while morphing into a more efficient scorer.
Paul’s effective field goal percentage (50.9) – which adjusts for the added expected value of three-point shots – true shooting percentage (55.9) and offensive rating (107.8) are all up over last season, with a greater assist rate to boot (20.3 percent). NBA motivations aside, Groce has unlocked Paul’s potential, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He is the catalyst of Illinois’ offensive operation.
Tracy Abrams (sophomore, guard)
A three-point heavy offense is a tenuous stylistic framework. Poor shooting nights can result in disaster. But you can’t fault Groce too much for encouraging the long-range barrage. The Illini happen to feature one of the deepest and most talented batch of guards in the country. Paul is the biggest name, but Abrams – a less capable scorer than Paul, but a more judicious passer – is no small thing. Like Paul, Abrams labored under Weber’s watch last season, but Groce’s offense has brought out the very best in Abrams’ game – the savvy cross-court passes, the shrewd decision-making on the break, the ability to finish, cut and dish at high speed.
He’s one of the biggest reasons for Illinois’ nonconference success, and a fantastic complement to Paul’s perimeter scoring. In a December 29 court date with Auburn, Abrams scored 27 points on 5-for-8 shooting, and 13-of-15 from the free throw line, to help Illinois escape what would have been a truly deflating loss to one of the SEC’s worst teams. You can take away Paul, sure, but Abrams can shoulder the bulk of offensive work all the same.
Nnanna Egwu (sophomore, forward)
The most common critique during Illinois’ hot start focused on the lack of an interior anchor, and the scoring and rebounding matchup disadvantages that posed. That is not an unfair knock; Illinois could use a productive frontcourt player or three. Egwu has been exactly that, only in limited and often wildly inconsistent bursts. Consider Egwu’s last two games. In a home loss to Minnesota, the sophomore big man finished with eight points on 4-for-7 shooting, along with nine rebounds and three blocks. That’s a solid game, gauged both in a crude, counting stats box-score sense and on a per-possession scale (141 offensive rating). Three days later, Egwu logged just 11 minutes, scored zero points and posted a ghastly offensive rating of 10.
Egwu has plenty of upside, and his athleticism is off the charts, but he hasn’t quite put it all together in this stage of his career. But be aware, if Egwu can settle into a rhythm on the offensive end, and offer his more reliable brand of rim protection (6.5 percent block percentage), the Illini will have an interior component to supplement a lethal perimeter attack.
Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. Illinois’ Frontcourt
Trying to combat Illinois’ three-point shooting with a similar focus on the other end of the floor is not a recipe for success. If the Illini are knocking down their threes, with the orange-clad supporters at Assembly Hall creating a frenzied atmosphere and erupting with every made shot, Northwestern doesn’t have a chance. They can’t afford to let this degenerate into a shootout. The Wildcats’ best bet, defeatist though it may be, is to pray that the three-point Gods abandon the Illini on their home floor, because a three-point battle is a game Northwestern simply can’t win. They need to attack Illinois’ weak spot, the low-block, and they need to use Olah in the act.
His last two games, at Penn State and home against Minnesota, have produced some of the worst offense Olah has played all season. He’s not attacking the basket with any sense of stability or direction. His cuts and post-ups are easily defended. And he’s avoiding contact, rather than utilizing his massive frame to get to the free throw line. Olah can give Northwestern something Illinois can’t easily combat, a legitimate inside presence to offset Illinois’ advantages on the perimeter. To do so, he’ll need to break out of his recent rut and play to his potential.