As Illinois fell to Michigan State, 87-74, a school record was set. Don’t expect anyone to commemorate it, though. At 0-8 in conference play, the 2017-18 Illinois men’s basketball team officially has gotten off to the worst start in conference play of any modern Illini team (the 1906-07 Illinois team lost all 8 conference games).
The #6 Spartans dismantled Illinois (10-11) and made more clear the extent of the rebuild Brad Underwood is undertaking. The house is still standing, but the walls are stripped and the studs are simply missing.
Illinois kept it close in the first half, improbably, mostly via turnovers, forcing 15 from the Spartans. But even though the visitors couldn’t hold on to the ball, they shot an unreal 78% from the field (15/19) and utterly dominated the glass, outrebounding the Illini 17 to 5 (only 2 of Illinois’s first half rebounds came on defense). It all added up to a tenuous 39-32 deficit at halftime, with the levee of the Illinois defense poised to break at any moment.
Sparty came alive in the second half and quickly inundated Illinois. Where Miles Bridges had been almost all the offense in the first, scoring 17 of 39 points, his supporting cast rose to the occasion in the second. Less than 2 minutes into the second half Nick Ward laid in a basket to stretch the MSU lead to double digits. The Illini would briefly get back within single digits in the final 2 minutes, but only just, and not with enough time to make it matter.
Bridges took a sledgehammer to the Illini, scoring 31, including so many back-door alley-oops that he may owe Illinois a fraction of his NBA signing bonus. Playing as a guard at 6’7”, Bridges highlighted the size discrepancy between MSU and Illinois, as a combination of Mark Smith, DaMonte Williams, and Mark Alstork tried to contain the future lottery pick. Sparty’s other lottery pick, Jaren Jackson, cut through the smaller Illini at will, finishing with 21 points and 11 rebounds. By the end of the game, MSU nearly had more dunks than Illinois had rebounds, 10 to 15.
Foul trouble was a problem for Illinois all night, particularly for Leron Black and Trent Frazier, both of whom fouled out late in the game. Black was held to 12 points and failed to grab a rebound, whereas Frazier’s all-out energy only netted him 13 points and 3 assists, somewhat less than his recent incredible form. Kipper Nichols was the only thing keeping the Illinois from being run off the court, scoring 22 in the second and ending the game with a career-high 27 points.
Overall, however, the Illini looked inferior in every way to their opponent. And every metric reinforces that point. KenPom.com ranks the Spartans as the fifth best team in the land, 9th overall on offense and 10th on defense. The Illini, meanwhile, are 106th overall, 147th on offense and 92nd on defense, and trending downward.
Ken Pomeroy (of KenPom.com, natch) put forth an interesting idea recently in the Athletic. He called it “Basketball Capital,” and it’s based on the idea that coaches have so much capital to use to make their teams good on offense or defense. The best coaches have a lot of capital and their teams end up very good on both ends of the court; other coaches have less capital and the split between offensive and defensive rankings becomes wide.
Though clearly not an issue for MSU, this split is extremely common, even among the best teams in the nation; for instance, Duke currently has the second-ranked offense and the 80th-ranked defense. Where Mike Krzyzweski makes his money, though, is using his capital to reduce the gap and forge a team that is good on both sides of the ball come March.
Based on his history, Brad Underwood likely has a decent amount of capital. Last year, Oklahoma State finished with the nation’s best adjusted offense but ranked 155th on defense. While at Stephen F. Austin, Underwood’s teams ranked 57 and 38 in 2016, 32 and 98 in 2015, and 58 and 105 in 2014 on offense and defense, respectively. If you use a median ranking of 175 to denote a thoroughly average team, you see that Underwood’s teams are consistently above average and that, by Pomeroy’s theory, Underwood likely possess enough capital as a coach to move his teams in a positive direction.
After losing its first two games by more than 10 points, it seems unlikely that the Illini will approach what Oklahoma State did offensively last season; however, is there room to improve by taking something away from defense? I think the answer is yes, and I think it comes from the same adjustment Underwood made last year that broke the Cowboys’ 6-game conference losing streak.
As outlined at Big Ten Geeks, when Underwood’s OSU team rattled off six straight conference losses, he ditched the high-pressure defense he’d brought with him from SFA. In its place he instituted a pack line defense, which allows teams more space around the perimeter and shuts down lanes to the hoop. Given that Illinois has allowed opposing teams a .324 three-point shooting percentage but a .703 shooting percentage at the rim (8th worst in the nation), this could be a wise move.
But the real benefit to such a system is not that it would help Illinois prevent easy buckets (it won’t, it will hopefully just minimize them), it’s that it would allow Underwood to use his capital to improve the offense. Following Pomeroy’s theory, Underwood’s coaching acumen is being spent drilling his team on strong defense (and it is working, as Illinois is 4th in the nation in turnovers forced, with 382 after forcing 25 out of MSU), so by instituting and easier system — one the players are more familiar with, as former coach John Groce used the pack line often — he could improve the offense.
Perhaps what is more likely, though, is that Underwood’s capital is not enough to pay down the debt of talent on the team he inherited. This was and continues to be the case for Illinois football coach Lovie Smith, whose NFL bona fides signify a coach better than his team’s 2-10 record in 2017. Thus, it may be more likely that Underwood goes the Lovie route with his team, which is to elevate “his” guys in terms of playing time at the expense of the old coach’s guys.
You can see this creeping into the minutes distribution; for example, Greg Eboigbodin played 5.7 minutes per game the first 13 games of his career but has averaged 16.7 the last 6, whereas Aaron Jordan averaged 21.1 minutes the first 13 games of the season but has seen his minutes fall to 17.6 since. Giving up-and-coming guys a shot in order to compete better next year is not an unwise strategy, it just risks alienating the inherited players and pushing them out the door.
After Michigan State’s destruction of the Illini, however, building a Big Ten-quality roster, even for next year instead of this year, seems worth the cost. The rebuilding won’t be pretty, that much is abundantly clear, but it won’t be remembered if the finished project is great. So, Underwood should keep on stripping it down. He now owns the worst Big Ten start of any Illini coach in 111 years, and history won’t care about his team’s luck or how competitive each game was before the final whistle.