Illinois Freshmen Lead Their Turnaround and Earns Them Another Look at the BubblePosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 4th, 2014
It was February 4, and Illinois had just been dominated by Wisconsin for the second time this season in front of a fairly empty home crowd; severe weather had been an issue. The loss made it eight straight for John Groce’s team — which for a consecutive season was in the midst of a major losing streak in conference play – and found themselves at the bottom of league standings with a 2-8 record. But unlike last season, there were no talented seniors like Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson in place to lead a turnaround. This team seemed doomed for a miserable last place finish. That’s when Groce put up the white flag and inserted his top two freshmen — Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill — into the starting lineup, a signal that he was moving on from the current season and looking toward the next one. What has happened since has surprised even the most optimistic of Illini fans. Since the shakeup in the rotation, Illinois has won four of its last six games — including three in a row — which includes road wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Odds are that they’re still likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, but their current body of work isn’t that far off from other bubble teams within the conference.
Defense has been Illinois’ strength all season as the Illini have held opponents to an adjusted 93.1 points per 100 possessions (14th in the nation), but their anemic offense, especially their complete inability to shoot the ball, wiped away the advantage their defense gave them. In the non-conference portion of their schedule, Rayvonte Rice was able to get to the rim effectively against less athletic teams or catch high-major teams off guard with his deceptive ability to use his strength while driving to the basket. But by the time Big Ten play started, there was enough tape on Illinois for opponents to adjust. Teams started packing the paint as a result, and Rice, who had averaged 18.7 PPG before the team’s slump, scored five points per game fewer during the eight-game skid. Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey, and Nnanna Egwu all failed to prove that they could be relied upon for consistent scoring too, so Groce decided to give his freshmen a shot. It seemed the best Illini fans could hope for was that Nunn and Hill would show signs of improvement by season’s end. Instead, the game came to them immediately, as the two young wings have combined for 19.8 PPG since becoming starters. Almost as importantly, Illinois’ defensive performance did not drop with the change in rotation. In the team’s last four games, Illinois has held its opponents to fewer than 0.83 points per possession (h/t John Gassaway). The results have been an improvement on offense to a point where they can once again rely on their defensive prowess to dictate the tempo of the games and turn their season around.
In addition to playing better, Illinois has put itself back in play for some sort of postseason reward — at a minimum, the NIT or CBI. What about the NCAA Tournament? This team is not yet on the bubble according to all the major prognosticators. And this is the likely the correct prediction as their next two games are probable losses against Michigan and at Iowa, which would drop their record to 17-14 (6-12) on the year. However, if we look at Illinois’ resume right now compared with Nebraska and Minnesota — the two widely accepted bubble teams in the conference — we see there is not a sea of difference. Their overall records and marks against the RPI top 50 are in fact quite similar. Illinois’ conference record has suffered because of their eight-game skid, but they also played a tougher conference slate than the other two teams. The table below compares all three resumes.
The table shows how much Illinois has been able to salvage its season in the last few weeks under the performance of two players who will be playing a significant role in the program going forward. If, somehow, Illinois were to win out, they would add two top 50 wins to their resume and find themselves squarely on the bubble. (But that may be thinking way too far ahead). For now, the Illini hope finish strong and build on what they’ve started since February. Finally, Groce deserves credit for making the bold move to his switch up his starting lineup. Things could have gone very badly with such a major change so late in the season, but regardless of the outcome, the season was already lost and getting experience for his future stars was the pragmatic move. Lucky for him it worked out. And we’ll see if they can cause some more heads to turn in the winding days in conference play.