The notion seems ridiculous. We’re talking about a team with six consensus top-100 players on the roster—that’s more than Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And all of those top-100 players are sophomores or older, which is the most upperclass top-100 players in the Big Ten. So yes, while this team was not very good last year, there’s plenty of talent on the roster.
And what’s more, new coach John Groce figures to be a perfect fit for fixing what was wrong with this team last year. In conference play, no team made fewer of their three-point attempts last season than the Illini. Even worse, the team was at least somewhat perimeter-focused, as 35 percent of Illinois’ attempts came from behind the arc.
But Groce is just the guy to fix that. Remember, this guy comes from the Matta School of Shooting. In the eight seasons that Matta has coached at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have led the Big Ten in effective field goal percentage four times. Over that same span, no other team has led the conference in eFG more than once.
Groce’s Ohio teams were no different:
|Year||MAC Rank in eFG|
OK, so that last season was off, but given the track record that came before, I’m thinking it was an aberration. And so far, the early returns on the Illini suggest this team can light it up, particularly from three-point range. So far the Illini have made about 42 percent of their attempts from deep, and they aren’t shy about hoisting them, either (over 43 percent of Illinois’ field goal attempts have been from three-point range).
Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Illinois isn’t without its faults. But given the makeup of the roster (which is heavy on top-100 talent, especially in the backcourt) and the strengths of the new coach, it’s hard to see how Illinois doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament.
The early returns are certainly encouraging, but I’m always a little skeptical when a mostly unchanged group of players makes such a dramatic turnaround in something as skill-dependent as shooting. Let’s drill down deeper on how Illinois’ most frequent shooters are faring compared to last season:
Illinois’ most frequent three-point shooter, D.J. Richardson, is shooting slightly worse than his established norm, but everybody else has made a huge jump. You can certainly come up with rational explanations for those improvements–Abrams and Henry are going freshman-to-sophomore, Griffey and Bertrand have always had good looking strokes, Groce is a good shooting coach–but it’s hard to believe that all of it will stick. Perhaps the biggest outlier is Brandon Paul, who is a great all-around player but has never been a consistently accurate shooter.
So, when that reversion-to-the-mean kicks in, where does Illinois go for points? The Illini are shooting under 49 percent on twos and aren’t getting to the foul line. It just seems like there is too much potential for the offense to fall off a cliff in any given game, which is the type of thing that can wreck a resume.
That said, I do think Illinois will challenge for an NCAA bid. The defense appears solid, and there’s enough talent to knock off some very good teams when the shots are falling. The cupboard was certainly not bare, and John Groce appears to have put these players into a great position to succeed.