Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Where will the points come from for Illinois?
Today I kick off my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on that suddenly who-dat blessed band of orange-bedecked young men from Champaign, proud members of the Big Ten since its founding in 1896.

Last year
26-7 overall, 11-5 in conference. Lost in second round of NCAA tournament to Washington, 67-64.

Rich McBride (10.0 PPG, 1.14 PPWS, 3.7 reb. pct., 4.4 assists per 100 possessions, 3.0 TOs per 100 possessions)
Brian Randle (8.5 PPG, 1.09 PPWS, 12.3 reb. pct., 3.4 A/100 poss., 3.1 TO/100 poss.)
Jamar Smith (8.0 PPG, 1.32 PPWS, 5.2 reb. pct., 4.4 A/100 poss., 3.5 A/100 poss.)
Shaun Pruitt (6.2 PPG, 1.04 PPWS, 16.0 reb. pct., 1.5 A/100 poss., 3.8 TO/100 poss.)
Warren Carter (4.8 PPG)
Marcus Arnold (3.5 PPG)
Calvin Brock (1.4 PPG)
Chester Frazier (1.3 PPG)

Brian Carlwell (6-11 C, Chicago)
Richard Semrau (6-9 F, Grafton, OH)
Trent Meacham (6-2 G, transfer from Dayton)
C.J. Jackson (6-8 F, redshirt freshman)

Dee Brown (14.2 PPG, 0.97 PPWS, 5.2 reb. pct., 10.1 A/100 poss., 5.0 TO/100 poss.)
James Augustine (13.6 PPG, 1.28 PPWS, 16.9 reb. pct., 3.4 A/100 poss., 3.9 TO/100 poss.)

Official motto for 2006-07 (muttered while rocking to-and-fro in the fetal position)
"There's no such sport as football, there's no such sport as football, there's no such sport as football...."

What we think we know in November (read the warning label)
The past two seasons of Illinois basketball provide a handy illustration of how continuity can coexist happily alongside change. (How Hegelian!) The Illini defense last season was about as effective as in 2005. But the offense declined sharply--hardly surprising, surely, when you say goodbye to Deron Williams and Luther Head. (Look fast: at this moment all five starters from the 2005 team are employed by the NBA, three of them by the same team.) And so my beloved Illinois, even with their consistently solid defense, took a step back: from 37-2 and national runner-up to 26-7 and getting sent home the first weekend.

This year the Illini say goodbye to Dee Brown and James Augustine, the two winningest players in the program's history. Will the offense again suffer accordingly? Not as much as last year. Brown and Augustine were both great players, no question, but as it happens only one of them had a great year last year. And that would be Augustine: the big man was one of the most efficient scorers in the Big Ten and rebounded with ferocity. Brown, on the other hand, struggled with his shot--even as he took more shots, by far, than any other Illinois player.

Indeed, the only area in which an otherwise sound Illinois team performed below the conference average last year was three-point shooting, so there's ample room for improvement there. It's true, of course, that Rich McBride (once he returns from his DUI-triggered suspension) and Jamar Smith (who together with McBride combined for a superb 43.4 3FG pct. last year) will receive much more attention from opposing defenses now that Brown's gone. But it's also true that Brown missed a whopping 165 threes last year--exactly five misses a game. (Brown paid dearly for the increased defensive attention opponents gave him in the absence of Williams and Head.) So the guess here is that McBride and Smith will see their combined 3FG pct. dip--but Illinois will nevertheless see its overall 3FG pct. improve.

Still, saying the Illinois offense won't fall off as much as it did last year is faint praise, indeed. With McBride serving his four-game suspension, a starting lineup of Smith, Brian Randle, Chester Frazier, Shaun Pruitt, and Warren Carter would not appear to be formidable on offense, to say the least. Most notably, that lineup has precisely zero outside shooting beyond Smith. So McBride holds an importance beyond his ability: he and Smith on the floor together present opponents with a perimeter that needs defending, thus opening things up in the post.

Granted, a three-guard Illini lineup is, in this instance (McBride, Smith, Frazier), a really short Illini lineup--and that triggers defensive worry. The thought here is not that such a lineup is the solitary and unchallenged ideal, rather that being able to deploy a particular combination of five players with some scoring ability would be a nice card to have in your deck.

As for this year's defense, Illinois would appear to be in good shape. They have speed, length, a modicum of depth, and a former Gene Keady protégé yelling hoarse epithets at them daily. Barring injury, that should net out to another year of opponents scoring less than a point per possession. (Ho-hum, right? On the contrary! The coach that truly achieves what nattering commentators always say their favorite coach has achieved will indeed be worthy of pre-Michigan Weis-level fawning: getting phenomenally talented 19-year-olds, recruited precisely for their ability to score points, to work as hard at preventing the scoring of points. Personally I think Roy Williams may be approaching that territory--topic for another day.)

Of course, seen in 2005 terms Bruce Weber is down to an unprepossessing bunch of relative who-dats. But--again, once McBride returns--it's a nicely blended bunch of who-dats. You have your outside shooters (McBride and Smith) your defensive stopper (Randle), your rebounder (Pruitt), and your high-assist point guard (Frazier). Not spectacular, surely. But solid.

Fellow Springfieldians (Barrett Deems, Robin Roberts, Andre Iguodala, me), unite!
A native of my own beloved Springfield, Illinois, Rich McBride was suspended for four games by Weber after McBride was arrested just outside Champaign on DUI charges on September 29. (No word on whether McBride shouted virulent anti-referee epithets at the arresting officer.) As for on-court matters: last year McBride lost some weight and gained some accuracy on his perimeter shot (40.3 3FG pct.). I trust McBride doesn't need to lose any more weight but a repeat performance on the accuracy would be most helpful to Weber. If Illinois can establish two consistent perimeter threats it will take pressure off their post scoring and their D.

There is no "D" in "free throw"
Brian Randle is known primarily as a defender--and rightfully so. He's outstanding, a Bruce Bowen-esque combination of length and agility. On offense, conversely, Randle presents a different sort of combination. In effect the junior from Peoria is a highly efficient scorer trapped in the body of an excruciatingly bad free throw shooter. Recall that there are but three types of shots to be attempted in this here sport: two-pointers, three-pointers, and free throws. Illini fans should feel very good when they see Randle about to attempt the first type of shot (58.5 2FG pct. in 2006) but should flee in Edvard Munch-level horror when they see him about to attempt the second (17.6 3FG pct.) or the third (59.3 FT pct.). (Coming into this year Randle is reported to have worked on his shot and is thus getting the same kind of preseason "Hey! He can shoot now!" coverage that Alando Tucker elicits in abundance.)

Randle's other challenge is existential: staying on the floor. He is whistled for fouls with alarming frequency.

(Injury update here.)

Can he do it two years in a row?
Granted he did it coming off the bench. Still, Jamar Smith, along with Marshall Strickland of Indiana, was the most efficient scorer in the Big Ten last year. Will he repeat? Of course not! For one thing, defenses will be much more focused on Smith than they were last year, when they had Brown and Augustine to contend with. And Smith's thoroughly meh 70.4 FT pct. suggests he was very fortunate, as Ken Pomeroy would doubtless be quick to point out, to drain 48 percent of his threes. So expect Smith's 3FG pct. to drop this year. (But be of good cheer, fellow Illini fans! This very same FT-3FG relationship suggests continued excellence in perimeter marksmanship from McBride, who hit 88 percent of his (scarce) free throws last year.)

From boards to points in the paint?
Look in the dictionary under "offensive rebound" and you'll see a picture of Shaun Pruitt: a big man perceived by opposing teams as posing little threat on offense....

Offensive reb. pct., 2006 (all games, 15+ min. per game)
1. J'son Stamper, MN (13.3)
2. Shaun Pruitt, IL (13.2)
3. Matt Kiefer, PUR (12.8)
4. Graham Brown, MI (12.5)
5. Spencer Tollackson, MN (11.3)

It'll be good news for Illini fans if Pruitt slides off this list--because that would mean he's getting touches in the paint by design and becoming a dependable cog in the offense. (And indeed Pruitt showed flashes last year.) So the big man's to-do list for this year is: more touches, more points, and improved defensive rebounding (last year's defensive reb. pct.: 18.8; Augustine's was 22.6).

Just a little threat will do
Chester Frazier couldn't hit a shot to save his life last year (0.60 PPWS, the lowest figure of 99 Big Ten players in 2006) and if that continues that's a concern for Weber. Frazier doesn't need to be Illinois' leading scorer, mind you--merely pose enough of a threat to prevent 5-on-4 defense. The good news for Illini fans is that Frazier's numbers for assists (8.6 per 100 possessions) and turnovers (3.6/100 poss.) suggest a player who can hold down the point-guard duties quite capably. He just needs to achieve normalcy in his (ideally rare) outside shooting--hitting, say, 34 percent of his threes.

Just a little threat will do, part deux
Warren Carter, he of the new-look hair, is an OK rebounder, posting a 13.5 reb. pct. in limited action last year. (He's no Pruitt, much less Augustine, but that's a little better than Randle's number.) Acceptability in the rebound department is not to be taken lightly on this year's roster--Weber, who says Carter "has the potential to be really good," needs someone to help Pruitt do the dirty work.

Senior big man and former Illinois State standout Marcus Arnold may well be needed this year (though not at point guard, if his 1:10.5 assist-turnover ratio is any indication). Weber would doubtless be delighted to see Arnold become an added source of boards and fouls to give.

Weber declared himself happy with how "confident" first-year big men Brian Carlwell and Richard Semrau looked at the Illini midnight madness event on October 13. Brian Randle, clearly impressed with Carlwell's D, says the freshman's been "blocking shots with his elbows" in practice. (Carlwell also provides a rare freshman weight-loss illustration of the validity of the law of November weight change. He has shed pounds and everyone's happy. Usually first-year big men are hectored to carb up for the rigors of the Big Ten. Not so Carlwell.) And Semrau's been described by his new teammates (set your preseason chatter dial to "hyperbolic") as James Augustine with a three-point shot. Redshirt freshman C.J. Jackson gives Weber still another body down low.

With 109 career minutes, Calvin Brock represents, all by his lonesome, the entirety of the Illini's "experienced" backcourt depth...kind of. Champaign native and Dayton transfer Trent Meacham averaged 18 minutes a game for the Flyers as a freshman in 2005. Meacham figures to back up Frazier at the point. If the young man from Champaign can hold on to the ball and play some D, he should get some serious minutes, for he gives hints of possessing an outside shot.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Penn State forward Geary Claxton suffered a broken finger in last night's 71-53 exhibition win over Division II Edinboro in State College. Claxton broke a bone in his right pinkie finger and is expected to miss two weeks. (Box score.)

Michigan State beat Division II Grand Valley State 61-57 in an exhibition game in Grand Rapids last night. Drew Neitzel led the Spartans with 27 points on 9-of-9 free throw shooting in 39 minutes. MSU gave GVSU 17 turnovers and trailed by as many as 16 in the first half. "The coaching points that we will get out of this game will be enormous,'' Tom Izzo said afterward. "Our film sessions will be a lot longer than the practices." (Box score.)

Ohio State beat Division II Findlay 80-57 in an exhibition game in Columbus last night. Ron Lewis scored 17 to lead the Buckeyes and freshman Mike Conley recorded seven assists. (Link here for the least informative box score I have ever seen.)

Illinois beat Division II Lewis University 83-58 in an exhibition played in Champaign last night. The Illini played this game without Rich McBride (suspended for four games for his DUI arrest in September) and Brian Randle (strained groin). Warren Carter led the men in orange with 13 points. Jamar Smith attempted eight threes and made zero, exemplifying an Illinois perimeter attack that went 3-of-21 from outside the arc. (Box score.)

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Remember: DAD is always wrong
Yesterday I suggested that defense is as important as offense. The readers respond!

As always, great blog. Here's a bit on the importance of defense that you might enjoy....

Yesterday I was listening to an interview with John Feinstein on NPR regarding Red Auerbach and Feinstein relayed a story told to him by Morgan Wooten, coach of DeMatha High School and the winningest high school basketball coach in the country.

During a summer league game many years ago, Red sat by the DeMatha bench in a game that went into triple overtime and was eventually won by the other team. When he saw Wooten after the game, Red said that he was sorry and Wooten said: Why? It was a great game and it's just summer league. Red said, no, I meant I'm sorry you lost your team the game.

Wooten said, huh? What do you mean? Red said: You went three overtimes and every time you had a timeout or stoppage, you talked to your team about their offense. You never once brought up your defense, even though you weren't having any trouble scoring and couldn't stop the other team.

Have a great day! Love the blog.

Nuclear Badger
Alexandria, VA

Thanks, NB!

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