How Has Conference Play Affected Illinois?

It is a common belief, and for good reason, that once conference play starts, the games get tougher for every team across the country. Illinois' run through the Big Ten last year is not a common occurrence, and Illini fans were quickly reminded of that fact with losses in Bloomington and Iowa City. In this article, looks at how much the rigors of the Big Ten gave affected the Illini as a team, and the individual players.

Heading into Wednesday night's game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Champaign, the Fighting Illini have already seen the best of the Big Ten. Last Saturday's game against Northwestern started the Illini's trek through the worst of the conference which continues Wednesday night, and ends on Saturday when the Illini welcome Purdue into Assembly Hall. The Illini's first five games in conference play have, not surprisingly, have provided a sharp contrast to the Illini's fourteen non-conference games.

Once conference play started, more and more people started to question the Illini. The Illini headed into the conference season with dominating wins over both Oregon and Georgetown, but once they entered the Big Ten Conference the road to victory became much tougher. In just five games of conference play this season, the Illini have recorded their first two losses of the season, scored under 50 points for the first time in Bruce Weber's tenure as Illinois' head coach, and allowed their first opponent to score over seventy points this season.

It would be hard to argue that the first five games of conference play have not been kind to the Illini this season. But how unkind has the Big Ten been to the Illini compared to their non-conference schedule?

  Big Ten Non-Conference Full Season Differential
Pace 62.73 66.24 65.31 -3.51
Offensive Efficiency 97.25 124.77 109.76 -27.53
Defensive Efficiency 94.38 83.90 86.55 -10.48
Offensive Rebounding Percentage 29.78 42.43 38.95 -12.66
Defensive Rebounding Percentage 71.43 70.82 70.98 0.60

Of the five major statistical categories that has tracked after every game this season, only one of them has improved since conference play started: Defensive Rebounding Percentage. The other four major statistical categories have all seen sharp decreases, none of which are really out of the ordinary, though the magnitude of the decrease is a little shocking, especially in offensive and defensive efficiency.

The Illini offense has been much maligned during conference play, and for good reason. In the non-conference season, Illinois' offense as not what one would call a well-oiled machine, but they were very effective thanks to great offensive rebounding. Once the Illini got into conference play, other teams were able to match the Illini in athleticism, and keep them off the offensive glass, removing most of the second chance opportunities the Illini used to feed their offense.

The Illini went from scoring 1.25 points per possession in the non-conference season (a very, very good number) to scoring just 0.97 points per possession in the conference season. There are three major reasons to the decrease in the Illini's offensive output in the conference season: (1) improved defense from conference foes who know the Illini's system & personnel and have scouted them for the last three seasons, (2) a sharp decline in Illinois' offensive rebounding, which is really an off shoot of the first point, and (3) the Illini players leaning more and more on Dee Brown to do everything on offense while ignoring their own ability to score.

The biggest shock might be the change in the Illini's defense. Yes, the Big Ten teams the Illini have played are far more talented than the teams they played in the non-conference season, but that does not explain it all. The Illini have actually rebounded the ball better in the conference season than in the non-conference from a defensive standpoint, but the opposition is scoring more. In conference play, the Illini have been allowing many more open shots than they did in non-conference play, which has been the difference in the great defense they were playing during the non-conference and the very good defense they are playing now in Big Ten Conference play.

The Illini's struggles to score points in conference play has led many to question Bruce Weber's rotations, specifically his desire to continue to start Rich McBride at the shooting guard when there are apparently "better" options in freshmen Chester Frazier and Jamar Smith. But what do the numbers bear out? Is Illinois better off having one of these two players in the game, or are they better off having Rich in the game?

Not only can the previous Box Score Breakdowns (Michigan State & Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, and Northwestern) help answer the questions presented above about Rich McBride, but it can also answer some other questions like: "Which player is the most important to the Fighting Illini's success?" and "Which player has struggled the most since Big Ten play has started?" Just watching the games can provide the answers, but sometimes even what the eye sees can be drowned out in bias, and the Box Score Breakdowns try to cut through that bias.

Which Player is the Most Important to the Fighting Illini's Success?
I think without a doubt most Illinois fans and members of the media, both local and national, would say that as point guard Dee Brown goes, so goes the Fighting Illini, but is that the case? It is tough to argue against it, and since Dee Brown has played all but just over six minutes in the five conference games, there has really been no time for Illinois to play without their point guard on the court, so the Illini really don't know what it is like to play without him.

The one player who the Illini have played without, who they really cannot play without is senior James Augustine. Augustine has sat out about seven minutes per game in conference play, for various reasons, including foul trouble in Illinois' two losses to Iowa and Indiana. Just how much have the Illini needed James Augustine on the court? Well, with him on the court, Illinois is +31 in 165.25 minutes and with him off the court, Illinois is -22 in 34.75 minutes, a difference of 53 points, or just over ten points per game.

To almost any one that has followed Illinois this season, the suggestion that Illinois goes as Augustine and Brown go would be common knowledge. The not-so-common knowledge part of it was just how important Augustine's presence on the court actually was. But who after Augustine has the greatest impact on the score differential when they are in the game? The answer may surprise even the most ardent watchers of Illinois basketball.

  In Out Net
Player Name +/- Time +/- Time +/- per 40
James Augustine 31 165.25 -22 34.75 53 10.60
Rich McBride 18 147.45 -9 52.55 27 5.4
Shaun Pruitt 13 112.20 -4 87.80 17 3.40
Brian Randle 10 144.73 -1 55.27 11 2.20
Dee Brown 5 193.75 4 6.25 1 0.20
Warren Carter 5 67.10 4 132.90 1 0.20
Chester Frazier 5 52.40 4 147.60 1 0.20
Jamar Smith -14 76.23 23 123.77 -37 -7.60
Marcus Arnold -28 40.88 37 159.12 -65 -13.00

Yep, the much maligned Rich McBride is sits right below Augustine in this measure. But how can that be? He is only shooting 30.8% from the floor, and an even worse 27.3% from behind the three point line. He is not scoring, and Illinois needs scoring! The flaw here is that while Illinois does need scoring, it also needs everything else that Rich brings to the game when he is on the court, specifically his firm understanding of the Illini offense and his defense, especially on the help side. So while Rich's scoring numbers are not where anyone would like them to be, including him, it is everything else that he is doing on the court that is tough to quantify that is helping the Illini in ways no other guard has done.

Which Player Has Struggled the Most Since Big Ten Play Started?
The answer to this question will probably be different to every person you ask, because even if they provide you with the same player, it will be for an entirely different reason. There has not been a player on the Illini roster that has not struggled in conference play at one or more aspects of their game. Of the three Illini players that had not seen the physicality of the Big Ten, only Chester Frazier has stood out in comparison to the pre-conference schedule.

Jamar Smith has not only struggled defensively, but his extremely reliable jump shot has gone from being nearly automatic (37-for-65, or 56.9%) in non-conference play to just very good (6-for-18, or 33%) in conference play. Jamar Smith was welcomed into the Big Ten by Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans shadowing his every movement and not letting him get a free tenth of a second to get a shot off. As news comes out that Jamar does not like the nickname placed upon him, "The Microwave", in the notes presented to the media before every game, he has already been dubbed "shooter" by every defender in the Big Ten. Defenses know where Jamar is, and they do their best to not let him get open.

No longer is Jamar instant offense off the bench for the Fighting Illini, and since he is not as good of a defender against the players he normally replaces when he enters the game (McBride or small forward Brian Randle), the Illini have struggled when he is on the court. When Jamar's shot is going in, his offensive abilities far outweigh the negatives he brings on defense, especially off the ball. But, since Big Ten play has started, Jamar has struggled offensively, and not surprisingly, with him on the court, the Illini are -14 in 76.23 minutes.

The other player really struggling in the Big Ten is Marcus Arnold. Before the Northwestern game, Marcus was Bruce Weber's first big man off the bench in almost every game this season. According to Weber, Marcus did not play in Evanston due to match up issues, but was it something more? Had Weber sensed that Marcus just was not getting it done on the court? Looking at the numbers presented above, it would be hard not to believe that it was a combination of the matchups and the struggles Marcus has had since Big Ten Conference play started kept him on the bench.

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