staff, November 25, 2011

It may be Black Friday and football may be on, but there's still Big Ten hoops to review. The conference has started to show some cracks, with two Big Ten teams losing games they probably shouldn't have and another couple struggling with lesser opponents. Let's get right into it.

Back under the chandeliers, Illinois once again followed up an excellent first half with a shaky second half in defeating Illinois State by only four. At the break, the Illini had scored 1.26 points per possession on the strength of a low turnover rate and solid shooting. Much like the Richmond game, it appeared Bruce Weber's team might cruise to an easy victory. Instead, Illinois State came out of the break on fire, using a barrage of dunks and threes to go on a 17-3 run that would put a stunned Illinois team down by seven. To their credit, the Illini responded to retake the lead, but some shaky play down the stretch very nearly gave the game back to the Redbirds. Illinois State even made a wide open three to tie the game with 29 seconds left (the Illinois defense was clearly confused about who was guarding who), but the ISU player had just barely stepped out of bounds before the attempt.

This was an extremely slow game, so Illinois' 63 points actually represented a solid output (1.12 points per trip). The problem, as it had been in the second half against Richmond, was one of perimeter defense. In fact, defending the three has been a problem for this Illinois team all season–opponents are shooting 38.5 percent from deep, compared to just 32.5 percent on twos. Is this going be a problem for Illinois?

Maybe, maybe not. Here's the three-point shooting percentages of Illinois opponents thus far, both against the Illini and against others:

Team 3PT% against Illinois 3PT% against others Difference
Loyola Chicago 28.6 32.5 -3.9
SIU Edwardsville 36.4 41.3 -4.9
Lipscomb 40.0 40.4 -0.4
Richmond 36.4 35.6 0.8
Illinois State 50.0 38.3 11.7

It looks like Illinois has happened to face some good shooting teams in the early going. That doesn't excuse the percentages they are allowing, but it explains some of it. Only Illinois State had a particularly good night, by their standards, against the Illini. Has this been a problem for Illinois in the past?

Season Opponent 3PT% National Rank
2010-11 30.5 14
2009-10 32.1 70
2008-09 29.6 7
2007-08 33.4 77
2006-07 32.3 45
2005-06 31.7 36
2004-05 35.8 230
2003-04 33.9 137

Not at all. Illinois has been quite good at defending the three under Bruce Weber. Last season's team held opponents to the 14th lowest three-point percentage in the nation. Is Sam Maniscalco really that much worse at defending the three than Demetri McCamey, who was much-maligned for his laziness on that end? That's doubtful. Most likely, Weber will get his inexperienced team to learn their defensive rotations as the season goes along, and this will cease to be a problem. It does bear watching, but I think it will get fixed.

Iowa suffered a humbling home loss to Campbell that really wasn't even close. The Fighting Camels bullied the Hawkeyes inside, blocking 10 shots and outshooting Iowa 65 percent to 38 percent on twos. Campbell does have an excellent center in 6-8 senior Eric Griffin, but that's not supposed to happen when Big Ten teams host Big South teams. Needless to say, this performance ratchets down expectations for Iowa going forward. Suddenly, with the two losses of the past week, the question may have changed from "can Iowa somehow make the NCAA Tournament?" to "will Iowa finish above Penn State?" The effort on the defensive end needs to improve if the Hawkeyes hope to avoid the Big Ten cellar.

Nebraska suffered its first loss of the season to Oregon, and it was surprisingly the defensive end where the Huskers struggled. Oregon was able to shoot 53 percent on twos, a number that few teams will be able to replicate against Doc Sadler's defense. Nebraska's offense was actually quite good, led by Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley combining for 39 points on 21 shots.

Michigan took care of business against a struggling UCLA team to claim third place in Maui. The Wolverines posted a 69.2 effective field goal percentage, their highest since late January. In all, Michigan can come home feeling very good about their offense, as they scored 1.09 points per possession or better in all three games. That streak will be tested as they travel to face a tough Virginia defense on Tuesday.

On Thanksgiving Day, Minnesota barely held off an aggressive DePaul team by an 86-85 margin. The Gopher offense did just fine, thanks mostly to rebounding over half of their misses, but the porous Minnesota defense allowed the Blue Demons to shoot 60 percent on twos. This was an entertaining game with lots of athletic dunks–Rodney Williams featured prominently with 18 points–but it wasn't a well-played game. Regardless, the Gophers will take the win and move on in the Old Spice Classic.

Everybody else beat up on lesser teams with relative ease, including Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State, and Michigan State. This weekend mostly brings tune-ups in advance of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Tuesday and Wednesday, which should be a lot of fun as always. Until then, enjoy your turkey sandwiches and rest well.