Illini Front Court: Offensive Production Breakdown

When people try to point to weaknesses on the Fighting Illini team, they point to the lack of production in the front court from players like James Augustine and Roger Powell, Jr. Is this lack of production due to a lack of available shots in the Illini offense, or is it from something else? In this latest column, Brumby looks at how the Illini offense breaks down between the front and back courts.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday afternoon, something became blatantly obvious to me, Illinois does not feed the post enough. Sure, I know that the strength of the Fighting Illini lies in the backcourt trio of Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams, but the lack of an offensive post presence can be frightening at times. I admit it, my biases when it comes to basketball are to watch a strong post game allow the guards to open up the game, and not the other way around. These biases are why Saturday's game left me with a weird feeling in my mouth as I left Assembly Hall.

Let's just take a quick look at the stat line for Illinois' four post players from Saturday afternoon:

JAMES AUGUSTINE
FGM FGA FTM FTA REB BLK FOULS PTS
2 4 0 0 6 1 0 4


ROGER POWELL, JR.
FGM FGA FTM FTA REB BLK FOULS PTS
0 2 2 2 1 0 4 2


JACK INGRAM
FGM FGA FTM FTA REB BLK FOULS PTS
0 2 0 0 1 0 0 0


NICK SMITH
FGM FGA FTM FTA REB BLK FOULS PTS
1 2 2 2 1 0 0 4


In Saturday's game, Illinois' four post players accounted for only 10 shots and 9 rebounds. Roger Powell, the Illinois big man who takes the most shots was hand cuffed thanks to foul trouble, but these numbers should never be this low, especially in a close game. At times on Saturday, it appeared that Illinois' guards forgot the big men were on the court, while at other times it looked like Illinois' big men just were not trying to get position in the post.

How much did Illinois ignore the post on Saturday afternoon? I don't think the guards knew it existed at all. According to the play-by-play data from FightingIllini.com, Illinois' big men took only two shots in the second half, combined. One of those shots was a missed put back slam dunk attempt by Roger Powell, and the other was classified as a "jump shot" from James Augustine. The last shot an Illinois big man attempted was at the 11:54 mark of the second half.

IS THIS A SEASON LONG EXPERIENCE, OR WAS IT AN ANOMALY?
Unfortunately, the play-by-play data that I have available to me does not include the amount of touches received by a player, either inside or outside of the post, so the only thing I have to base the following on are: (1) my observations, (2) my memory of my observations, and (3) the number of shots taken by Illinois' big men.

I don't think there is any disputing that Illinois is a guard-oriented team. The Illini's starting backcourt are the team's three best players, and the team's three best offensive options, but have they forgotten the simple basketball edict that a strong post game opens up the outside for shooters. Even some of Duke's most guard oriented team's in college basketball used a bruising inside presence, both offensively and defensively, to open up the game for their outside shooters. What would Jay Williams have been without Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier manning the post?

For my calculations, here is the one assumption I will be using. Any shot from any of Illinois' big men that was not a three pointer will be considered an inside shot. Yes, I know Nick Smith shoots most of his shots from the outside, but in general if he is shooting the ball, it means Illinois probably ran a specific one-off to get a big man involved in the game, like a pick and pop or a pick and roll.

According to FightingIllini.com's latest stats, Illinois has attempted 1459 field goals. If you adjust those field goals to include foul shots, you have a total of 1644.24 shots taken by the Illini in the season's twenty five games.

Now, let's look at how these shot totals break down amongst the Illini:

Player Group Shots Free Throws Team Percentage
Starting Backcourt 779 184 52.3%
Starting Frontcourt 355 168 26.1%
Overall Backcourt 854 188 57.0%
Overall Frontcourt 536 205 38.1%


If you take out the three point shots attempted by Roger Powell, Jack Ingram, and Nick Smith, these numbers are even lower.

Player Group Shots Free Throws Team Percentage
Starting Frontcourt 320 168 24.0%
Overall Frontcourt 484 205 34.9%


For the purpose of these calculations, I did not include Warren Carter, Shaun Pruitt, or Fred Nkemdi in anything outside of the overall shot total. While they have seen time this season, their contributions to the offense really have not occurred during a time when the game was in question with the outside appearance of Carter due to foul trouble. The effect of these three players on Illinois' shot total was just 5%.

These numbers back up the one thing I definitely have gathered from my watching this Illinois team play, they really do not feed the post as much as I would like, but the results have proven themselves out for success over the season. The guards are taking about 57% of the shots while, the Illini big men are only combining for under 40% of the overall team's shots (and when you discount the three pointers, which are the obvious non-inside shots, the Illini big men are only accounting for 35% of Illinois' shots). This really has not affected the Illini's offense as they are still operating with an offensive efficiency of 120.95, an astronomically high number, and only lower than Wake Forest in college basketball.

So how much different was Saturday's Wisconsin game than your standard game across the season? Illinois' big men combined to take only 10 of Illinois' 48 shots, and when you adjust that for free throws attempted, Illinois' big men just took 20.1% of the Illini's shots on the afternoon. Saturday's performance was about 20% below the average performance, and probably an anomaly.

But that does not really answer the question I have, why does it appear that Illinois' post game is just not there as a reliable option on offense?

I think it comes down to a few key factors:
  • The Illini guards just do not have faith in the Illini big men to be reliable scoring options. We know that this group of Illini guards does not mind feeding the post when that is the best way to score. They have proven they will do this based on their play two years ago when the Illini offense revolved around making sure Brian Cook took as many shots as possible. There are times during the season when Illinois' guards have ignored the post completely for possessions in a row, and the Illini big men have turned into little more than pick machines offensively, but this only seems to happen when the Illini offense is not moving fluidly.
  • The Illini big men are not aggressive enough offensively. If I had one dollar for every time James Augustine caught the ball in the post and threw it out without even making a move for the basket, I would have a nice little 401k investment. This all has to do with their own offensive confidence. There are games when the Illini big men, especially James, will act like world beaters offensively, and then there are others when they will be ultra passive and not even look at the basket with an offensive move.
  • The Illinois offense does not promote the post entry feed. Bruce Weber understands that the strength of his team is in his backcourt. He also understands that you design your offense to play to the strength of your team. When Rolan Roberts was on his Southern Illinois team, Weber designed plays and set up reads in his motion offense to take advantage of the Saluki's best scorer. In the 2001-2002 season Roberts accounted for 17.2% of all Southern Illinois' shots, and the only player who accounted for more was Kent Williams who took 20.2% of the shots for Southern Illinois. This year, Illinois is not setting up those plays, nor is it designing reads to get the Illini post players involved.

    Why? Because having the ball in the hands of Illinois' guards to make the best decisions on who should be scoring gives Illinois the best chance to win.



Illini Inquirer Top Stories