Despite an embarrassing loss to Maryland, Illinois has won seven of its last eight games -- with four top-61 KenPom wins during that stretch. The Illini (11-4, 1-1 Big Ten) currently rank No. 30 in the RPI and No. 70 in the KenPom. Why the disparity? The results of the schedule (and strength of schedule, where the Illini rank No. 14 in the country) favor Illinois more than the numbers. The eye test probably lines up closer to the KenPom ratings, but there's a reason the Bracket Matrix has Illinois as an 11 seed right now. They have an NCAA Tournament resume -- barely.
The Illini's toughest remaining portion of the schedule is ahead with four top Big Ten teams during the next 11 days. Indiana, the Illini's opponent on Saturday, wasn't expected to lose two Big Ten home games all season, but the Hoosiers have their first two conference home games in Assembly Hall -- the best home-court advantage in the Big Ten -- to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Still, Illinois lost two games to Indiana by a combined 61 points last season, and keeping the Hoosiers offense within striking distance seems like a tough task for this Illini team. Illinois then hosts two possible NCAA Tournament teams at home (Michigan and Maryland) before traveling to Purdue (No. 14 KenPom) -- and then Michigan. Protect home court, and Illinois is doing well. Win three of those games -- which would include a marquee road win -- and Illinois is feeling great.
Jalen Coleman-Lands is a huge X-factor this season. He hasn't taken a leap this season and actually has regressed in almost every offensive category (3-point percentage down 11 points and turnover rate up five points). But when he struggles, Illinois really struggles. He has three games in which he's had an ORtg (offensive efficiency rating) lower than 70 (for reference, 100 is considered a solid number) and scored four or fewer points -- and Illinois lost all three of them. In four games, he failed to make a three-pointer, and Illinois has lost three of them with the VCU game, the only exception. In the VCU game, he made a career-high five two-pointers. In the other 14 games this season, he's made a combined five two-pointers.
Michael Finke had some massive swings in production. During the first six games of the season, he averaged 12.5 points and shot 53.6 percent from the field. During the next five games, he totaled just eight points (1.6 per game) and made just 2 of 16 field goals (12.5 percent). He has heated up slightly the last four games, averaging 7.8 points on 10-for-18 shooting (55.6 percent), including 6-for-13 from three. Given his defensive deficiencies, Finke must be efficient on offense. Though, he is finding more ways to impact the game. His offensive rebound percentage (11.1 percent, up from 7.8 last year) is top-200 in the country and his defensive rebound percentage has ticked up from 13.9 percent last year to 16.3 percent this season. Finke's best trait might be his passing, but it has regressed a bit this season. He's turnover rate has increased from 13.3 percent last season to 20.6 percent this season, while his assist rate has fallen from 9.9 percent to 3.9 percent.
When Maverick Morgan has an ORtg of 95 or higher, Illinois is 9-0. When Mav Morgan has an ORtg of 75 or below, Illinois is 2-4. During the last five games, Morgan has 37 rebounds (7.4 per game). He had 26 rebounds during the first 10 games of the season (2.6 per game).
Though his scoring average has declined, Mike Thorne Jr. is a more efficient offensive player this season. He is shooting 62.7 percent from the field, up from 47.3 percent last season. But his rebound totals have declined significantly. His offensive rebound percentage is 11.2 percent, down from 16.3 last year. His defensive rebound percentage is 17.6 percent, down from a staggering 31.5 percent last season. Is this injury related? It's certainly a possibility, but Thorne pulled down nine rebounds in 16 minutes in his one game after injury last season. Leron Black's presence -- who is top-40 in defensive rebound percentage -- also may have an impact on Thorne's totals.
Tracy Abrams' shooting is regressing to the mean. The senior made 28 of his first 46 three-point attempts (60.9 percent) this season. He's made two of his last 15 during the last three games, dropping his season percentage to 49.2 percent. Still, he is two made threes away from setting a career high in three point field goals made in a season. His ORtg of 114.1 is almost 20 points higher than his junior (95.1) and sophomore outputs (96.5).
Through two Big Ten games, Malcolm Hill is averaging 20.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. He is 9-for-14 from two, 3-for-8 from three and is 14-for-17 from the free-throw line. Illinois has an All-Big Ten candidate.
Aaron Jordan has an ORtg of 72.2 and has attempted just 10 shots this season. He averaged 10.0 minutes per game the first seven games of the season but is averaging just 2.9 minutes per game during the last eight, which includes three DNP-coach's decisions. His shot release is still awkward, and though he plays solid defense, he still hasn't proven to be a Big Ten impact player.
D.J. Williams also hasn't proven himself yet. He averaged 12 minutes per game during the first six games. He's averaged 6.9 during the last nine games, during which he's totaled 16 points and six rebounds (five in on game against Central Michigan). While "Flash" certainly has his moments -- and we hear he randomly has practices where he looks like a pro -- those moments are few and far between. He could be a big part of the team next season and certainly has the skill set and ceiling to be a productive Big Ten player, but he's still an unknown.
During the last seven games, Jaylon Tate is averaging 18.7 minutes per game and has 24 assists to nine turnovers. But he also has just 12 points in those 131 minutes. Te'Jon Lucas has played 13 minutes during the last five games with three DNP-coach's decisions. There's no denying Lucas has a better and more dangerous overall skill set than Tate -- he can score! Groce said the freshman is improving, but Lucas obviously has practiced well enough to earn more trust than Tate, a senior. Lucas' turnover rate and defense have left some to be desired but also hasn't earned enough playing time to improve much in those areas. Lucas should be a solid player in years to come for Illinois, though he will have to fight off better talent in future years. But it appears that Groce has made his decision on the backup point guard for a make-or-break 2017.
According to Hoop-Math.com, Illinois has the third lowest percentage of shots attempted at the rim, ahead of only Michigan and Missouri State. Illinois finished second lowest (among 351 teams, mind you) in that category the previous two seasons. Conversely, Illinois has the fourth highest percentage of two-point jumpers attempted, though the Illini do make 43.5 percent of those two-point jumpers which ranks 16th in the country on those shot attempts. Of course, most analysts think two-point jumpers are the worst shot attempts a team can take since the percentage of makes is lower than shots at the rim and the reward is smaller than three-point attempts. Groce correctly has said some of his players, especially Hill and Black, have a gift for the mid-range. But that's a flaw of this team's makeup. It needs more players who can score attacking the rim, though Hill and Abrams did well in this aspect against Ohio State.