The Illini Offense: How Bad is it Struggling?

Articles have been written about it, Bruce Weber has mentioned it, and Illini fans have discussed it on message boards. What is this topic on the tip of the tongues of seemingly ever Illinois fan when discussing the flaws of the undefeated Illini? Simple, the lack of offensive execution. But is the Illini offense as flawed as every one is saying?

First things first, let's look at point totals, the easiest measurement of how effective an offense is.

South Dakota State: 90
Texas – Pan American: 71
Texas Southern: 93
Wichita State: 55
Rutgers: 77
North Carolina: 68
Xavier: 65
Arkansas – Little Rock: 75
Georgetown: 58
Oregon: 89
Coppin State: 61

The Illini's scoring numbers have ranged from the fifties to as high as the nineties, but the Fighting Illini are averaging 72.9 points per game, with a median of 71. If you compare this to the first 11 games of last season, the Illini did not score less than 70 points, and scored above 80 points seven different times (in fact the Illini only scored in the fifties twice last season). This season, the Illini have not been as good offensively as they were last season when they had the best offense in the country, but no one (not even Duke) so far this season has an offense as good as the Fighting Illini's was over the entirety of last season.

While the Illini offense is no where near the plane it was at last season, and it should not be expected to be, the Illini offense is not as bad as the press, and even Head Coach Bruce Weber wants to make it out to be. Sure, there are not always crisp cuts. Sure, Dee Brown has had to force shots while the offense just stood there stagnant. Sure, the motion looks more like a sloth moving around at times than a basketball offense. Sure, all of these things exist, but what also exists is a very efficient offense (32nd in the nation) that has scored 1.11 points per possession over the entire season.

But why are the Illini scoring totals down? Simple, a dramatically decreased number of offensive possessions the Illini actually have used this season. So far this year, the Illini have not been a running basketball team, actually far from it. Sure, the Illini can get out and run on the break, and Dee Brown is probably at his best when the Illini are doing this, but for the most part, the Illini opponents have controlled the tempo of the game, and kept it much slower than the Illini would have liked.

How many possessions have the Illini had in each game this season?

South Dakota State: 78.76
Texas – Pan American: 62.28
Texas Southern: 74.00
Wichita State: 66.76
Rutgers: 61.76
North Carolina: 68.48
Xavier: 63.64
Arkansas – Little Rock: 62.32
Georgetown: 57.16
Oregon: 73.04
Coppin State: 56.92

With the decreased pace the Illini have been playing, especially against Georgetown and Coppin State who would wait until ten seconds were left on the shot clock to even attempt to make an offensive move, it makes it very difficult for the Illini to score points in high numbers. The decrease in the tempo of the game for the Illini is occurring because of two main reasons: (1) opponents are attempting to shorten the game and make every possession count more and (2) the Illini offense is running to the end of the shot clock more and more as the team attempts to run the offense.

The second reason there is the main reason the tempo of the game for the Illini is much slower than it was last season. Yes, there were times last season when the Illini would run the shot clock down to the final moments, but those happened far less often than they have this season. One of the constant themes fans have pointed to this season is Dee Brown forcing shots at the end of the shot clock, and while these shots have also been very inaccurate, they are also a sign of the decreased tempo the Illini have been playing at all season.

Since the Illini are playing at a much slower tempo, the point totals are lower, but how are the Illini doing on a per possession basis when running the offense? Actually, for the most part, very well. There are only three games this season where the Illini have not scored over one point for every possession over the course of the basketball game: Wichita State, North Carolina, and Coppin State. In the other eight games, the Illini have managed to cross the one point per possession barrier, but how have they done it?

The Illini are not shooting great from the floor, they are only shooting 45.9% from the floor, and a terrible 61.9% from the free throw line. The only bright spot in the Illini's offensive shooting has been their three-point shooting, of which the Illini are connecting at a 37.2% clip. Thanks to their three-point shooting, the Illini as a team are averaging 1.1 points per shot attempt, which is about the same level as the overall efficiency of the offense and have a true shooting percentage of 55.15%.

After Sunday's game against Coppin State, Bruce Weber pointed to the Illini's 16 turnovers as something he wanted to ensure the team worked on and improved before heading into the annual Bragging Rights game against Missouri on Wednesday evening. But, despite the very poor performance on Sunday afternoon against the melding of various different zones and junk defenses the Eagles threw at the Illini, the Illini have taken average care of the ball this season, averaging only 13.5 turnovers per game.

So, while the Copping State game definitely left a bad taste in Bruce Weber's mouth on his teams offensive execution, turnovers have not been a major problem this season for the offense either, but they are still a point of concern for the Illini Head Coach, especially because the Illini have been turning the ball over once every five times down the court this season.

After looking at the turnover numbers, I have to ask again, how is the Illini offense getting the job done? Simple, offensive rebounding.

Heading into the 12th game of the season, the Illini have ten more offensive rebounds than turnovers, giving the Illini a great opportunity for second chance points. In fact, the Illini have been hitting the offensive glass so well this year, that they have rebounded 42.9% of their own misses (good for tenth in the nation). That is the key statistic as to why the Illini offense is still scoring at a high level on a per possession basis.

While players are shooting poorly the Illini front line is hitting the offensive glass with a reckless abandon, especially the starting front line. James Augustine has pulled down 39 offensive rebounds this season, more than fellow starting forward Shaun Pruitt has pulled down on the defensive end of the court. Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt are no slouches on the offensive glass either as they have pulled down 28 and 24 offensive rebounds, respectively. Warren Carter and Marcus Arnold both are averaging more than one offensive rebound per game, as well.

So, while every pundit and even Bruce Weber himself have pointed to problems in the Illini offensive execution, the biggest story about this Illini offense is being missed, its great offensive rebounding. The Illini's control of the offensive glass in games has allowed the offense to continue to score despite some struggles in the other portions of the offense.

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