The yo-yo continues. Since the Dee Brown Era, Illinois has reliably alternated good season with mediocre, missing the NCAA Tournament every other year. This past season did its part in an up year, as the Illini were only 5 points from reaching their first Sweet 16 since 2005.
That certainly qualifies as a successful season for first year coach John Groce, who injected plenty of energy into the program. But also, Groce injected a ton of three-pointers.
The feel-good story would be that John Groce (who comes from the coaching tree of Thad Matta, whose teams almost always shoot well) rehabilitated the broken jumpshots of the players inherited from Bruce Weber, and a newfound confidence had them bombarding opponents from the perimeter.
But that’s not really what happened. In truth, this was a lousy shooting team that insisted it was not. In conference play, Illinois ranked 11th in three-point accuracy, finishing ahead of only Iowa. Groce’s ball-screen offense provided a lot of looks from three, but plenty of those looks turned into bricks.
Does this look under the hood suggest the Groce Era is doomed? I mean, if the coach can’t even get his players to convert the shots the offense is designed to get, at even an average clip, isn’t that a fundamental problem?
In a word, no. If anything, the fact that Illinois was so terrible at running Groce’s offense should be cause for optimism. After all, the Illini finished a respectable 7th in the Big Ten on a point per possession basis. Supposing Groce can get his team to eventually finish at par on three-point accuracy, this offense should be a force.
Sadly though, that season is not likely to come this year. With only 10 scholarship players at his disposal—half of which are freshmen—this year is likely going to be rough. Tracy Abrams figures to be the centerpiece of the offense, and he’ll be flanked by Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice. Both players have their strengths, but outside shooting does not appear to among them. Jon Ekey should provide some marksmanship from long range, but he was a low-usage player at Illinois State, and if he follows the traditional path of “transfer ups,” his usage will shrink even further this year. It will take a surprising performance from a freshman (or two) for the Illini to match last season’s success.
Long story short, expect the yo-yo pattern to continue this season. But long term, the Illini are trending up.
2013 Record: 23-13 (8-10)
Conference Offensive Efficiency: 1.00 (7th)
Conference Defensive Efficiency: 1.02 (7th)
Percentage of Conference Minutes Returning: 39
Percentage of Conference Minutes Played by Returning Freshmen: 0