Illinois finished the basketball season with a one point loss at Clemson on Sunday. It was a painful gain to watch: open shots, plenty of chances, but the ball just would not go in. 14% from three and 37.5% from the field doesn’t get you many wins. It was the type of offensive performance we’ve grown accustomed to this year.
If you look at the gross stats on ESPN, you’ll see the Illini ranked in the bottom quarter of all Division I schools for points per game (64.6 points, ranked 311). There are a few good teams that score that little, a very few, but the remaining teams in the NCAA Tourney all score more. Illinois shot 40.9% from the field (320th) and 31.9% from three (293rd), still in the bottom quarter to bottom third of all teams. In assists, we were 10.1 per game, good for 330th, which is bottom 10%. There are lots of other statistics that measure tempo, offensive efficiency per possession, etc., but bottom line, this was a bad offensive team. Hopefully we won’t see worse offense in many years to come.
The real question: how did this team actually manage to win 20 games and make it to the post-season? Defense, obviously, and grit and toughness. When Nike unveils their rebrand concept soon, they damned well better place ‘FIGHTING’ above the ‘ILLINI’ on the basketball jerseys. And yes, this toughness and sound defense can keep you in a lot of games, even allow you to steal a few. You can build an identity around ‘Fighting’. This last game against Clemson, for example: Clemson shot close to 50% and out-rebounded Illinois, and yet we were one better possession the final minute away from stealing that game at the end.
But if you want to make it to the tourney and be a threat to advance to the Sweet 16, you can ‘t just fight; you also have to score. You have to play-make, hit open shots, pass the ball effectively. Coach Groce just didn’t have enough guys who could do this. Will we have enough of those guys next year?
Let’s see… We add a pair of guards in Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby who were effective D1 shooters from the three point line last year. They also handled the ball a lot for Oregon State and Seton Hall, respectively. We add Darius Paul, former MAC Freshman of the Year, a power forward who can pass and score. Two freshman, athlete Leron Black and stretch-four Michael Finke. These five replace Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey. And you never know who else might leave, as rosters rarely seem to remain intact these days.
On the balance it looks like help is coming. And if we’re honest, this may well mean less minutes for returning starters. Most Illini fans would be OK with that. But will the new guys provide enough help? Can we move from the bottom quarter in scoring to at least the top 50%? Can we elevate the woeful field goal percentage and assist numbers?
This question of offense also needs to be posed to the coaching staff. They are due some introspection as well. Too many times, the high screens and isolations seemed like the only option. Off the ball movement was nil. Throwing it into the post or screening for the big guys? Forget it. So Coach Groce needs to add to the offensive gameplan. He needs some variations, some new sets to install. Is there a Bill Cubit-type assistant coach out there available – a guy who can scheme and implement and cause a bad offense to click? Or is it just down to getting better shooters and play-makers on the floor? We’ll find out next fall.