Non-Conference vs. The Big Ten?

With a bye this weekend, Brumby thought it would be time to see how the Fighting Illini have been affected by the rigors of conference play. In this article, Brumby looks at the changes in the Illini's pace, offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and rebounding efficiencies.

One of the commonly held wisdoms among college basketball experts and fans alike is that once conference play begins the games get tougher for every team in the nation. The reasons given for this include:

(a) coaches know more about what their in-conference opponents will run
(b) the players know more about their opposition because they play against each other twice a year
(c) the home court advantage is more defined because fans are more energetic against conference opponents.

The question that I was looking to answers when I went to break down the statistics was whether or not that was the case for the Fighting Illini this season. On the surface, it would appear to someone that the Illini have had a tougher go of it in conference play. The Illini were taken into overtime by Iowa in Champaign on Thursday evening, and the Illini tailed Purdue at the half in a game earlier this season.

While in the non-conference, there were really only two games in fourteen that fans and the media alike could point to as contests in which the Fighting Illini struggled, Georgetown and Missouri. The rest of the non-conference schedule for Illini was very positive, and it included large wins over Wake Forest, Gonzaga, Oregon, and Cincinnati.

Note: The numbers highlighted in red indicate a change in a negative direction. So the Defensive Efficiency going up (which means Illinois is allowing more points per 100 possessions), is highlighted in red.

  Non-Conference Big Ten Difference
Pace 67.74 64.76 2.98
Offensive Efficiency 121.69 121.37 0.32
Defensive Efficiency 91.21 99.44 8.23
Efficiency Differential 30.47 21.93 8.55
Offensive Rebounding Percentage 36.69% 40.68% 3.99%
Defensive Rebounding Percentage 67.27% 71.83% 4.56%
Illinois' PPSA 1.21 0.93 0.29
Opponent's PPSA 0.98 1.14 0.16

Surprisingly, the numbers really do not point to a sharp difference in the way the Illini have been playing through the non-conference schedule and through the first five games in Big Ten play. The major differences between the non-conference and conference statistics is the change in pace, defensive efficiency, and rebounding for the Illini.

The drop in pace from 67.74 offensive possessions per game to 64.76 is not all that surprising. The Big Ten Conference is known as a conference that will slow down games. When you combine the Big Ten's penchant for slowing down the basketball game with the idea that to beat Illinois, you should slow down their guards, you will see a slower pace in conference games.

This has been seen in conference play. Of the conference teams the Illini have played, only Iowa routinely plays the game at as fast of a pace as the Fighting Illini, and the Illini and Hawkeyes ran up and down the court at a high pace on Thursday nigh. The games against Northwestern and Purdue were much slower than Illinois was used to in the non-conference season, but still quicker then either Gene Keady or Bill Carmody would have liked.

The one thing I was expecting to see happen when conference play started for the Illini was the offense taking a slight dip. I figured teams would have had a better chance to scout Illinois based on how they played them last season, and watching fourteen game tapes from this season. Surprisingly, the change in Illinois' effectiveness on offense is negligible. As a team, the big changes in the Illini offensively are the sharp drop in points per shot attempt (adjusted) and the four percent increase in offensive rebounds. The Illini are using their offensive rebounding prowess to make up for scoring less on shots than they were in the pre-conference portion of the schedule.

The biggest shock to me when I looked at the numbers was Illinois' eight point per 100 possessions decrease in defensive efficiency and a 0.16 increase in the amount of points opponents are scoring per shot they are taking. The Illini were great defensively against Iowa (efficiency of 82.28), and used their defense to win the basketball game as the Hawkeye defense had stifled the Illini's offense (efficiency of only 88.33). While the common wisdom is that in conference play, the Illini would be better prepared on the defensive end of the court, the statistics actually bear out a slight lapse in defense since conference play has started.

Note: The numbers highlighted in red indicate a change in a negative direction. So turnovers going up, is highlighted in red, while a decrease in turnovers is highlighted in black.

Luther Head 2.23 7.17 19.10 1.21 2.39 0.17 1.35 2.19 0.05
Dee Brown 6.75 1.54 12.30 1.13 1.16 0.34 0.20 0.09 0.08
Deron Williams 4.62 2.13 55.35 0.60 2.10 0.81 1.58 6.37 0.26
Roger Powell, Jr. 26.48 30.00 13.33 1.54 0.50 0.43 0.88 1.54 0.44
James Augustine 4.36 - 14.60 2.33 0.29 0.80 0.69 2.19 0.07
Nick Smith 16.62 33.33 53.85 1.67 0.26 0.46 0.50 1.13 0.34
Jack Ingram 10.94 83.33 8.33 0.40 0.44 0.10 1.29 1.99 0.17
Rich McBride 13.50 8.10 - 0.17 0.21 0.24 1.28 0.93 0.34
Warren Carter 13.92 - 50.00 0.57 0.15 0.46 0.33 1.38 0.27
Shaun Pruitt 16.67 - 63.64 - - 0.67 - 0.42 0.16
Fred Nkemdi 25.00 - - 0.36 0.09 - - 1.45 0.50

Luther Head: Luther has been a savior on the offensive end of the court for the Fighting Illini. He has increased his scoring output by just over two points per game, and there were times thus far in conference play that Luther was Illinois' only offensive option. With his increase in scoring, Luther has also seen a decrease in his field goal percentages (thus his PPSA going down slightly) and assists.

Deron Williams: While Deron has seen a sharp decrease in his scoring since the start of conference play (6.37 points per game), he has also seen a sharp increase in his assists (2.10 per game) with an associated decrease in his overall turnovers (0.81 per game) that has led to his assist to turnover ratio being up dramatically.

Roger Powell, Jr.: Maybe the most shocking numbers in any of these increases or drops for the Illini has been Roger Powell's numbers. The Illini power forward has seen his shooting decrease dramatically from both inside (down 26.48%) the arc and out (down 30%) which has lead to a PPSA decrease of 0.44 points per shot attempt. It is also not shocking that with the Illini's rebounding presence as a team increasing since the start of conference play, Roger has been grabbing 1.5 rebounds more per game since the start of Big Ten play.

James Augustine: The Chicago Tribune had a story in Sunday's paper on the Illini big man and how he needs to gain confidence in himself. Even if you include his horrific Iowa game in his numbers, James' offensive numbers have actually increased with the start of conference play. The biggest jump in James' game has been his work on the glass. In the five Big Ten games, James' has increased his rebounding average by 2.33 rebounds per game.

Nick Smith: The much maligned Illini center has not surprisingly stepped it up with the start of Big Ten play. Nick is just not suited to run the court like some of the Illini's opponents tried to do in the non-conference season, so the slower pace of the game has helped the 7'2" center. The only numbers that are down for the big center are his rebounding numbers. Offensively, Nick is shooting better from the floor and the free throw line, turning the ball over less, and has increased his PPSA the most of any player on the Illini team.

Rich McBride: The sophomore guard from Springfield has struggled mightily in Big Ten play. His shooting percentages are down, as is his confidence. The one thing that is good to see is with the increased playing time he has received due to the foul trouble of other Illini guards is that he has decreased his turnovers while increasing his assists.

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