Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

December 31, 2008

Like their Governor, Illinois Does the Unexpected

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:32 am

If today’s reeling newspaper field still harbors within its tattered precincts at least one editor with an ounce of tabloid juice in his or her veins, then surely we will see this out there somewhere this morning: “BLAGO TO SENATE: DROP DEAD.”

Say this for Rod Blagojevich, he provides marvelous spectator sport. Where more “conventional” or “sentient” politicians would resign when indicted on federal corruption charges, Blagojevich has in effect donned a Prussian helmet, closed the trap door, and said: come get me. In keeping with that spirit, yesterday he had the chutzpah to appoint someone to fill Barack Obama‘s Senate seat, despite the fact that he’d already been told that the Senate would not seat anyone he appointed.  

The governor has long made plain his disdain for downstate Illinois (note to aspiring governors: not a good move to make plain your disdain for 75 percent of your state’s territory), but if by chance he were to swing by Champaign during this his August of ’74, he’ll see a team that likewise enjoys confounding the conventional wisdom.

With their 71-67 overtime win at Purdue last night, Illinois mastered the art of inverting the story line. The stop-the-presses news about this team, as you may have heard by now, is that this year their shots are actually going in. That particular piece of news was lost in translation last night, however, as Bruce Weber‘s group managed to win a rather unsightly Big Ten scrum despite scoring less than a point per trip.

They won because they deprived the Boilermakers of two things they hold dear: takeaways and Robbie Hummel. In a 45-minute game with 75 possessions against what last year was one of the best teams in the country at creating turnovers, Illinois gave the ball away just six times. That nets out to a turnover percentage of eight. Eight: a number so small you can spell it. Not that the Illini translated all those shots into points, of course. But the lack of quick baskets for Purdue off of their opponent’s turnovers was huge.

So, too, was Weber’s ability to keep the ball out of Hummel’s hands. The sophomore from Valparaiso attempted just seven shots and scored seven points. On paper the Boilers have other weapons, good ones. But on the floor it’s striking how tentative those other weapons suddenly become when the possessions aren’t being funneled through Hummel.

So here are the Illini, 13-1 and looking weirdly robust. If you need a Unified Field Theory of Illinois, here you go: Shaun Pruitt is gone. Thus free throw accuracy is way, way up (duh), and defensive rebounding is way, way down (ditto).

At this point I should waggle my Prospectus finger sternly at the Illini and proclaim that they’re doomed–doomed I say!–because of their weak efforts on the defensive glass. But let’s be honest. If you’re going to suck at defensive rebounding, the place to do it is clearly the Big Ten, where 11 out of 11 coaches surveyed are deathly afraid of going after offensive boards, for fear of allowing points in transition. Sure, there’s a ceiling for Illinois (more on that directly) but, in a league where no one crashes the offensive glass Carolina-style, it will not be their poor defensive rebounding that holds them back. Georgetown, for example, is doing weird and wonderful things in the burgeoning field of outstanding defense without rebounds. The Illini appear to be taking notes.

The real change has been on offense, where a number of small unexpected events have converged to produce yet another surprise: points. First, Mike Davis has made a freshman-to-sophomore leap that, while it may look small compared to the metamorphoses uncorked thus far in the Big Ten by Manny Harris and Evan Turner, has had a huge impact on his team. With the 6-9 Davis making mid-range jumpers, space has been created for the always lurching yet strangely accurate Mike Tisdale to make, as chance would have it, mid-range jumpers. That in turn has freed up the perimeter shooters. Again, the news here is simply that Illinois has perimeter shooters: Demetri McCamey, Trent Meacham, and, as of ten days ago, Kentucky transfer Alex Legion.

For the past two seasons the knock on the Illini has been a lack of talent due to poor recruiting. Well, they still have the same talent, Legion notwithstanding. It’s just that said talent is playing better. 

So seeing Meacham and Davis run the exact same pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops that were being run four years ago by Deron Williams and James Augustine must be both exhilarating and bittersweet for Illini fans with memories of the 2005 Final Four team. Exhilarating because this stuff is working. (When did Meacham become such a mid-range auteur?) Bittersweet because, well, Meacham and Davis of course aren’t Williams and Augustine. As I said, a ceiling. But let’s talk about the real news here: Illinois is better than anticipated.

BONUS big-upset note! This was not a good night for teams that made their bones this season beating Davidson. On the same night that the Boilers fell, Oklahoma dropped a 96-88 decision at Arkansas. Blake Griffin notched a 21-13 dub-dub and Willie Warren scored 35 points thanks to 7-of-11 shooting on his threes–and yet still the Sooners lost. The Razorbacks went to the line an astounding 43 times and OU was absolutely hammered on their defensive glass, as the home team rebounded 48 percent of their own misses. I was already on the (radio) record that Oklahoma at this point is merely a lottery-pick-blessed default as a highly-ranked team. The real unknown here is Arkansas. They lost at Missouri State (a team that is now 7-5) and haven’t played anyone else of note. Until now. Big Prospectus kudos to Michael Washington, who recorded a 24-11 dub-dub on 10-of-12 shooting from the field in just 26 foul-plagued minutes.

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