Smile Politely

Indoor ice storm

Tim Beckman had a way of saying things after a loss that made you laugh so hard you almost forgot he was a disgrace. Like, “If you take X number of plays away, we’re right in that game.” He eschewed the idea that the whole comprises the parts in order to explain, paradoxically, that his teams weren’t actually that bad.

John Groce doesn’t offer up the same kind of quotes. His aren’t humorous because he acknowledges his own shortcomings. Well, to a degree. He’s an expert in the art of saying nothing while talking for a long time. I’ve long since given up on getting anything substantive out of him.

Malcolm Hill can be very closed-off, but he often offers gems of wisdom, such as this after Illinois’s 56-62 loss to Maryland: “We need to learn how to respond when teams make a run…. It’s kinda getting late in the season. We have to figure that out fast.”

That is about as honest an appraisal as you can give about how Illinois collapsed. The Illini held a lead as high as 8 points with 16 minutes left to play but went ice cold shooting, including a drought of 7:51 that saw Maryland go on a 14-0 run to take an 8-point lead of its own.

The game was one of runs, with both Illinois and Maryland going on significant runs at times. But the big one, Illinois’s 7:51 ice block, was deadly. Twitter user @fishangelous has a really good breakdown of the effects of this, it’s worth reading the whole thread:

Cold streak aside, things just didn’t go well for Illinois overall. The 5-point halftime lead, in retrospect, even seems like a product of Maryland not executing rather than the Illini doing everything well.

Hill, for instance, wasn’t a big factor, at least by his standards. He had 11 points and 8 rebounds, but didn’t make it to the free throw line at all and offense rating was 76, way down from his season average of 120.4. The freshmen who impacted the game so heavily against Ohio State, Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols, must have made it on Maryland’s scouting sheet, because they were effectively neutralized, combining for 2 points and 4 rebounds. Tracy Abrams might have been the worst offender, however. The senior guard put up a goose egg, scoring none, nabbing 2 rebounds, dishing 2 assists, and turning the ball over twice.

Jalen Coleman-Lands is an easy target for criticism, as he was also far off his best, making just 3 of 12 field goals, all from distance. In fact, only one of his shots against Maryland was inside the arc. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, I don’t think what JCL did was incorrect.

Following the line of reasoning laid out in a fascinating article by John Gasaway, the most simple math in basketball is that 3 is more than 2. Therefore, teams should be taking more of the most valuable shots in order to maximize their scoring potential, as Coleman-Lands did.

In the first half alone (see shot chart above), when Illinois was actually making shots, the team took just 8 threes and made 3 of those (37.5%), slightly worse than the team’s season average (38.3%). On the flip side, the Illini missed their first 5 layups, eventually making 4 before halftime. Had Illinois run a play to get the ball to the corner for a three instead of taking 3 of those 5 bad layup attempts (assuming the same success rate), they would have 3 more points. Not game-changing or capable of dramatically altering the outcome, but it’s something.

Some might look at that theory and call it specious, to which I’d reply, you might be right. But the alternative is a highly contested shot with maybe a slightly better conversion rate? Why not roll the dice on something more valuable.

It hardly matters, anyway. It’s hard to tell what the coaching does for this team as it is; how do you explain the nearly perfect performance in the Michigan game and the total collapse a few days later? Ditto the Ohio State and Indiana games. Could be that Groce and his assistants are as statistically savvy as anyone else in the country and it’s not making a lick of a difference. Could be that all the people with egg avatars on Twitter who say John Groce is the worst coach in the Big Ten are right. Anything is possible, including Illinois remaining in the hunt for a tournament berth. I mean, it doesn’t look like it right now, but Minnesota cracked the top 25 last week, so the only thing I can say about the rest of Big Ten season is ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

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