By now you’ve no doubt heard that Illinois is off to a pretty hot start in Big Ten play in terms of shooting the ball. But until I took a closer look at what constitutes “normal” for major-conference games, I didn’t fully realize just how preposterous Bruce Weber‘s team has been. Seasoned Illini-watchers tell me the always-fretful Weber has actually started wincing visibly each time his players sink yet another three. It’s almost as if the coach knows this is too good to last.
The coach is right. Illinois has recorded two of the best shooting performances seen in major-conference play over the past five-plus seasons.
What is with the Big Ten this year?
Best effective FG percentages, 2006 through January 9, 2011
Major-conference games only
1. Illinois (vs. Northwestern, Jan. 6, 2011) 80.7
2. West Virginia (vs. Rutgers, Jan. 31, 2007) 80.4
3. Illinois (@ Iowa, Dec. 29, 2010) 80.2
4. Arizona (vs. Stanford, March 7, 2009) 80.0
5. UCLA (vs. Arizona State, Dec. 31, 2009) 78.6
6. Iowa (vs. Michigan, Feb. 4, 2006) 78.6
7. NC State (vs. Florida State, Feb. 15, 2006) 78.4
8. NC State (vs. Virginia Tech, Feb. 18, 2007) 78.1
9. Ohio State (@ Indiana, Dec. 31, 2010) 77.6
10. Oregon (@ Cal, Feb. 9, 2008) 77.6
Not bad for a team that lost to UIC, right? Also note that three of the best ten shooting performances of the past five-plus years have come from the Big Ten over the past two weeks. No wonder teams league-wide are scoring a robust 1.09 points per possession in conference play. Don’t be fooled by the slow pace — if you like offense this year’s Big Ten is for you.
Now, precisely how ridiculous is it for Illinois to be shooting this well? Think of it this way. Since 2006 and including last night’s games, there have been four instances of a team recording an effective FG percentage of 80 or better in major-conference play. That’s four times out of 3138 games. In other words you should expect to see an 80 eFG happen once for every 785 major-conference games played — keeping in mind that in any entire season there are just 621 major-conference games.
And yet Illinois fans have seen it happen twice in three games. It is historically insane.
BONUS “I know what your’re thinking” note! I have to admit that when I started looking at outstanding shooting performances, I was a little dubious about the whole exercise. Surely I’d find a bunch of blowouts recorded by home teams. Who really cares how many shots a team makes in the last couple minutes when they’re ahead by 20?
That aptly describes the Illini’s 88-63 win over Northwestern in Champaign last week, certainly. But I was surprised to find how often these incredible performances were actually necessary for most or even all of the 40 minutes. In their win on the road against Iowa, for example, Illinois won by just ten points despite a night of historically absurd shooting from the field. By the same token last year’s game between UCLA and Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion, cited in the table above, ended with the Bruins winning 72-70. But my favorite example is last year’s game between Nebraska and Kansas State in Manhattan. The Cornhuskers couldn’t miss, recording an effective FG percentage of 72.9, a level of marksmanship which puts them in the 98th percentile of accuracy. But Nebraska lost 91-87, as the Wildcats went to the line 40 times. Not every gaudy eFG number comes from a blowout.