Hey folks, it's time for another basketball Q&A. Today we have Jim Vainisi of the Illinois SB Nation site The Champaign Room.
Question #1 - Illinois has traditionally provided strong basketball teams. However it has been a couple years since you’ve been to the NCAA Tournament. What were the expectations going into this season with the team?
Illinois hasn’t made it to March since 2012-13, but I think it’s safe to say that most fans expected the 2015-16 squad to be competitive in the middle-tier of the Big Ten while making the NCAA Tournament with relative ease. After all this was a talented, experienced roster that was being infused with the conference’s No. 2 incoming recruiting class. Injuries have completely decimated those expectations, however.
Sixth-year senior Tracy Abrams is missing his second straight season -- this time with an Achilles injury -- and the Illini were left scrambling for another point guard to provide depth. Then there’s graduate transfer Mike Thorne Jr., who was shaping up to be one of the conference’s best post players before he went down with a torn meniscus. Finally, sophomore forward Leron Black was diagnosed with a similar knee injury; the coaching staff rushed him back, his condition worsened, and he’s now out indefinitely. So if you tally up just those major injuries, Illinois has had to replace three talented starters.
As for current expectations, answers will vary depending on whom you ask. A lot of fans don’t want to accept the likelihood of missing a third-straight postseason, but that’s exactly where Illinois is headed. But there’s absolutely still a small portion of the fan base that, sadly, won’t accept anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance despite these unfortunate circumstances.
Question #2 - The Illini have had a few tough losses but recently beat #20 Purdue. Many of this has been contributed to injuries and illness on the team. In your eyes, how has the team performed so far this year?
Oh they’ve been f------ terrible in just about every game this year, but that was to be expected with all the injuries. The team’s stunning effort against Purdue will probably end up as their No. 1 performance of the season. That was the best game plan John Groce has developed during his time in Champaign, and so many other things went in Illinois’ favor during the actual game. The Illini absolutely still have room for improvement, but they can’t and won’t repeat that on a night-to-night basis.
Of the nine healthy scholarship players, four of them are freshmen so there’s obviously been a noticeable learning curve for a big part of the rotation. Specifically, Michael Finke (redshirt forward) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (first-year guard) have shown huge flashes of potential.
Questions #3 - What does the team do well and also what do they need to work on?
Let’s start with the bad. Illinois’ defense is absolutely dreadful. The Illini have actually posted a fairly average adjusted efficiency of 102.1 points allowed per 100 opposing possessions (Nebraska’s Adj. Eff. is 100.3 points, for comparison), but the numbers behind that figure are hard to comprehend. Illinois is giving up an eFG% of 53.8 (309th) and that’s largely driven by opponents shooting an incredible 38.7% from behind the arch (317th). I think a huge part of Illinois’ 3PT defensive struggles stem from a lack of rim protection down low (281st in defensive block percentage, 241st in 2PT%). Let’s be honest, though, Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan aren’t exactly the most intimidating duo in the post. As a result, the perimeter defenders are giving their assignments an extra foot or so of space in order to prevent them from driving to the basket. Another potential cause could be the inexperience of the freshmen wings since they’re still getting acclimated to defensive expectations.
Now the good! Illinois has proved they can be a really good on offense, and that all stems from ball security. The team’s only elite trait from a statistical standpoint is their offensive turnover rate of 14.0% -- that’s good for 4th in the nation.
Then there’s Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, who have both been superb for the Illini. Nunn is an explosive athlete and he’s Illinois’ best defender. On offense, he’s become a volume shooter that’s often stationed in one of the corners waiting for a pass. You’ll definitely see him drive to the basket quite a bit, but he does most of his damage in transition and from behind the arc. Hill, on the other hand, has become more of a focal point this year by handling some playmaking/distributing responsibilities. He’s even seen quite a bit of time at point guard since he rarely makes a bad decision with the ball in his hands (think Iowa State’s Georges Niang). Of course, he’s also more than capable of putting the ball in the basket when needed.
Question #4 - What does Illinois need to do to to get through the conference slate and get to the postseason.
If it wasn’t made clear above, Illinois starts and ends with Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. The Illini will need those two to keep playing at an All-Big Ten level while the rest of the team continues to develop and grow around them.
Barring a surprise run in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois won’t be headed to the NCAA Tournament. Discussion hasn’t even started in regards to accepting/declining a potential NIT bid, but the Illini would most likely have to go at least 6-8 the rest of the way to even be considered; the .500 requirement was eliminated in 2006, but a team has still never been selected below that threshold.
Question #5 - It is year 4 of John Groce’s tenure at Illinois and some fans are starting to grumble. How would you describe his time so far and what would you like seen done?
It’s been a rollercoaster, to say the least. This era of Illinois basketball started off so promising after the team narrowly missed out on the Sweet Sixteen in Groce’s first year. Since then, the Illini have been the most unlucky program in America. All of the injuries, suspensions, and high-profile recruiting losses have resulted in an inordinate amount of adversity. Groce is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, but there’s only so much that can be done when faced with these constant challenges.
At the same time, though, the results simply just aren’t there. If/when Illinois ever gets around to hiring a new athletic director, that individual will have a very difficult decision to make after the season ends. I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question because I’m personally still in ‘wait-and-see’ mode, and it’s probably fair to say that most Illini fans are viewing the situation in a similar light.
Question #6 - Okay, last question. What do you see happening against Nebraska and what will the final score be?
Although Illinois has struggled considerably this year, this is one of the few remaining games on the schedule that they should win; KenPom agrees as it gives Illinois a 67% chance of pulling out a victory.
However, the match ups against Andrew White and Shavon Shields are concerning only because Illinois’ depth doesn’t really permit their defenders to give up cheap fouls. I could easily see the Illini getting into early foul trouble. On top of that, one of Ed Morrow/Glen Watson will inevitably have the best all-around game of their young career because that’s just how things go for Illinois when facing shunned Chicago natives.
So, while I think these two teams are pretty comparable, I predict the Cornhuskers escaping Champaign with a close win.
Nebraska 74, Illinois 72
Thanks again to Jim for answering our questions and make sure you follow him on twitter @jimvainisi for updates during the game.