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December 11, 2012
Getting Better
Illinois and Pitt

by John Gasaway


Late on the evening of March 8, 2012, Ohio took the floor at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland to play Toledo. At the time there wasn't an abundance of attention being paid to a MAC quarterfinal between a No. 3 seed and a No. 7 seed that tipped at 9:55 p.m., but it actually marked the beginning of a rather remarkable run.

Starting with the opening tip of that game, teams playing for John Groce -- which is to say Ohio in the 2011-12 postseason, and Illinois so far this season -- have devoted 43 percent of their shot attempts to three-pointers, and have connected on those attempts 40.5 percent of the time. Groce's record over that stretch stands at 15-1, and he is yet to lose a game in regulation. (Ohio, you may remember, lost in overtime to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.)

That run was extended and rather emphatically highlighted by the Illini's brutally convincing 85-74 win at Gonzaga on Saturday night. The Bulldogs entered that game undefeated and ranked No. 10 in the nation, and, just so there's no misunderstanding, this was not one of these "home" games for the Zags that actually gets played 280 miles away in Seattle. This game took place in Spokane, in the McCarthey Athletic Center, Gonzaga's highly intimidating bandbox of a home venue. And all the Illini did was ring up 85 points in a mere 67 possessions of basketball.

Illinois: Surprising, volatile, and dangerous
There's no getting around it: Illinois is far better than I expected them to be at this point. In other words, yes, I'm acknowledging that up to now I have underestimated a Big Ten team. (The mea culpa to a Big Ten program is becoming something of a go-to genre for me.)

And I'm not just mouthing praise with my words, I'm voting praise with my rankings. On my ballot in our ESPN.com Power Rankings this week, the Illini have made a huge leap, going all the way from unranked to No. 17. Huge leaps are justified when you win by double-digits on the home floor of a top-10 opponent.

I note, however, that the consensus of my voting colleagues is that I'm still not giving Groce's team sufficient love, as Illinois sits at No. 11 in our overall Power Rankings. I'm open to persuasion, believe me, but I'm still not ready to go quite that far with a team that needed dramatic game-winning shots to win at Hawaii, and, especially, to win at home against Gardner Webb. If Tyler Griffey doesn't make that long three in the closing seconds against the Bulldogs, for example, the Illini are "only" 9-1 (ha -- still far better than expected), and their ranking likely isn't quite as high as No. 11.

So in addition to thinking of the Hawaii and Gardner Webb games as Illinois wins, I also like to classify contests like that for any team simply as "close games," the theory being the fact that the outcome could have gone either way has something instructive to tell us about a given team. Once we've given the Illini full credit for a 10-0 start, then, ask one additional question. Where we should rank a team that won at Gonzaga by 11, beat three unranked teams to win the Maui Invitational, and played close games at Hawaii and at home against Gardner Webb? The answer in my book is No. 17.

The Illini are a perimeter-oriented team, and to this point in the season they're shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Incredibly, they've shot under 37 percent from beyond the arc in just three of their 10 games, but those games constitute arguably this team's three least impressive outings: Hawaii, Gardner Webb, and a 72-64 win at home over Western Carolina. If we assume that Groce's team will be below their very good average from the perimeter about 30 percent of the time, the men in orange and blue will have to fall back on something other than three-point shooting in those games.

Here are two things Illinois may be able to fall back upon in such games: Brandon Paul, and turnover margin. The most encouraging aspect of an already encouraging Gonzaga game for Illini fans was surely the stellar 35-point performance by Paul, one that included not only 10-of-16 shooting from the floor but also a potentially paradigm-shifting 10-of-11 showing at the line. For long stretches in the second half, Groce simply put the ball in Paul's hands and let the senior create as he saw fit. This represents a big departure from recent Illinois history, where player discretion and aggressive moves off the dribble were both held to an absolute minimum.

In addition to great three-point shooting, Illinois has had the wind at their backs in another much less visible way. The Illini have given the ball away on just 18 percent of their possessions, while opponents have committed turnovers on 23 percent of their trips. If that margin, or anything close to it, continues in Big Ten play, Groce's team will be better equipped to survive the occasional off night from the perimeter -- and I may have to grant that my ESPN colleagues were right all along in rating Illinois so highly.

Pitt: Underexposed and underrated
The team that I would rank as high as No. 11 or so, and have, is Pitt. My colleagues have the Panthers at No. 20 this week, which, mind you, is leaps and bounds more accurate than the AP poll, which as late as last week still didn't have Jamie Dixon's 9-1 team in the top 25 at all.

That being said, I can't help feeling that Pitt, as so often happens with early-season rankings, is to some extent paying for the mistakes that we the voters committed all by ourselves in the preseason. Coming off a 5-13 season in the Big East, the Panthers were nowhere to be found in any of the various preseason top 25s for 2012-13. Throw in the fact that Dixon's team has played just one ranked opponent to this point -- they lost to Michigan 67-62 in Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving eve -- and you have a situation where our preconceived preseason notions with regard to Pitt have been more or less frozen in place.

I believe that's a mistake. The Panthers are better than most observers expected in the preseason, and data point No. 1 here is losing by just five on a neutral floor to a team as good as the Wolverines. Here are a couple other such points worth noting....

If there's one things fans in Pittsburgh can set their watch by with this program, it's outstanding offensive rebounding. Even last season, when the Panthers took a very uncharacteristic trip to the CBI (which, by the way, they won), this was still the No. 2 offensive rebounding team in Big East play (second only to West Virginia).

That tradition has continued this season, as Pitt has hauled down 41 percent of their missed shots. With Talib Zanna, Steven Adams, and Dante Taylor, Dixon has the luxury of rotating three of the nation's preeminent offensive rebounders on and off the floor as fouls and fatigue warrant.

What's changed dramatically this season, however, has been the Panthers' ability to hang on to the ball. Last season this was Dixon's largest single problem on offense, as his team gave the ball away on 23 percent of their possessions in 18 Big East games. This season that figure has dropped all the way down to 15 percent. Granted, the opponents haven't always been particularly strong, but I'm not forecasting a huge jump in turnovers once Big East play begins.

Pitt's three top players in terms of minutes are Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson, and James Robinson, and all three of them appear to be very reliable with the ball. With Woodall and Patterson my characterization is based simply on their histories. (Woodall's a senior, and Patterson's a junior, and while Woodall did commit a few turnovers last season I'm giving him a small evaluative pardon for playing the better part of 2011-12 while overcoming an abdominal injury.) As for Robinson, my expectations for his performance the rest of this season are based in part on on my history looking at freshman point guards in December. Oftentimes your freshman point guards are not particularly shy about exhibiting a tendency toward turnovers very early in their playing careers. Robinson, conversely, has shown no such indication, and Dixon has rewarded him with starts and playing time accordingly.

When your team minimizes turnovers, maximizes offensive rebounds, hits 38 percent of its threes and 55 percent of its twos, you're going to have an outstanding offense. And, even adjusting for the competition, Pitt's offense has indeed been outstanding. They'll stay off-the-radar for another couple weeks, but once Big East play and calendar year 2013 begin we'll see whether I was right to single out the Panthers as underrated as 2012 drew to a close.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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