Where Do the Illini Go From Here?

Losing to Penn State in Champaign can make even the staunchest Illini fans question their place in this world. A loss like that is a cataclysmic event, one which rocks the foundation of nearly everything you believe. Despite being 20-3 and sitting in second place in the Big Ten, Illinois' coaches are probably going back to the drawing board, to fix some glaring weaknesses as Illinois heads into the stretch run, and hopefully a prolonged stay in March's NCAA Tournament.

When your entire world view is questioned, you begin to look at things in a different perspective. That is what losing to Penn State caused me to do. Sure, Illinois is still 20-3 and only one game behind (it pains me to say this) Big Ten leading Iowa, and they control their own destiny for the Big Ten Championship due to the fact they have one game with Iowa left on the schedule. This has been a great season, but the horrific events of Saturday night caused me to look deeper, look at what could happen come March. It caused me to flashback to Austin Peay, UTEP, and UT-Chattanooga. Not pleasant flashbacks.

So the question remains simple, what can Bruce Weber and this Fighting Illini do over the next month to ensure those flashbacks don't become reality in the future? To figure this out I had to look deeper at the questions that have been going through my mind.

As the Big Ten season has progressed, it has become blatantly obvious that Illinois only has six players that Weber believes in, and will trust in the game in key situations were he dealt the perfect hand. The other players in the rotation, well, Weber uses them, but because he has to. They just do not provide the right mix on talent, skill, enthusiasm, hustle, and flow that are needed to be effective basketball players at this time in their Illinois careers. That is not to say they won't be effective players in future seasons, but right now they just are not cutting it, and they are being used out of necessity.

In a previous article, I discussed just how important James Augustine was to the Fighting Illini. When he is on the floor, the Illini are a much different team. When he is on the bench, well, Illinois is most of the time, bad. After avoiding foul trouble throughout the pre-conference schedule, once the rigors of Big Ten play has started, Augustine has regressed back into the player that picks up too many stupid fouls. It is not like James is picking up six fouls in the paint. He seems to get at least one offensive foul a game, and one foul a game double teaming a guard on the perimeter.

Even with the difference when James is on the court, the Fighting Illini go as the face of the Illini, and college basketball, Dee Brown goes. If Dee Brown is hot, the Illini will win the game, no matter how the rest of the team plays (see: Michigan State). If Dee Brown is not hot, the Illini will lose the game (see: @ Iowa and @ Indiana). While as Illini fans, we really don't know what it would be like this season to play without Dee Brown, we can all imagine that it would not look good. But, is Dee getting enough rest?

I know I have been of the opinion that simply stated, heck he's just a college kid, he is young and virile, and he should be fine after just a day or two of rest. So, instead of just saying that, and believing it, I decided to look at how Dee Brown plays based on different amount of rest between games in Big Ten play. The numbers speak for themselves, in fact telling me that my common wisdom is completely wrong. Dee Brown is a much better player the more rest he sees between games.

Day of Game Days Rest Opponent MIN FG% 3FG% TO PTS
1/5/2006 6 Michigan State 39 54.55 53.85 3 34
1/7/2006 2 @ Iowa 39 15.38 10.00 5 6
1/14/2006 7 Michigan 40 35.29 50.00 2 26
1/17/2006 3 @ Indiana 37 11.11 16.67 2 5
1/21/2006 4 @ Northwestern 40 60.00 40.00 2 18
1/25/2006 4 Minnesota 37 63.64 50.00 1 17
1/28/2006 3 Purdue 37 35.71 0.00 2 12
1/31/2006 3 @ Wisconsin 40 33.33 20.00 4 16
2/4/2006 4 Penn State 40 25.00 27.27 5 11


In Illinois nine Big Ten games, Dee Brown has played all forty minutes in four of them, thirty-nine in two of them, and he never played less than thirty-seven minutes. That strain on Brown is more to play nearly forty minutes a game is more strain than almost every player in the country is facing, even JJ Redick is playing less time for Duke, and Coach K seemingly never has found a player on his bench that he will use. So, just how glaringly different is Dee Brown with more rest? Unfortunately, the more time in between games, the better Dee Brown is.

POINTS PER GAME
Points Against Days Rest Graph
Dee's only two games in which he scored more than twenty points occurred after days without games spanning six days (Michigan State) and seven days (Michigan). With shorter rest, Dee's scoring output is well, much lower.

FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE
Dee has been known as a streak shooter since he was a player at Proviso East, so when he is in the zone, he can score with the best of them, but when he is cold, he is ice cold. His shooting this season is much more streaky than he was last season, but that is to be expected with him holding the majority of the Illini's scoring load. So what does his field goal percentage look like against the time off?

Field Goal Percentage Against Days Rest Graph
Much like scoring, Dee is shooting better with more rest between games. Of course, these two definitely go together.

TURNOVERS
So if his shooting shows a correlation between the amount of time off between games, does his ability to handle the ball show one, too?

Turnovers Against Days Rest Graph
While Dee's turnover numbers jump around, there does appear to be a slight correlation between the amount of time he has been able to rest before a game, and his amount of turnovers.

Across all of the games, the one thing that rarely changes is how many offensive possessions Dee uses for the Fighting Illini. His usage rate has remained relatively constant throughout the Big Ten season, so it is not like he is lowering his turnovers before games with more rest because he is handling the ball less. For whatever reason he is making better decisions with the basketball when he has had more rest between games.

So what can Bruce Weber do?

The answer to that is not easy, and that is why Bruce Weber is getting paid the big bucks. He knows he needs to get Dee more rest. He knows he needs Dee on the court as much as possible. He knows Illinois is not the same team when Dee is sitting next to his assistants on the bench. So, how do you take all of this into account, and maximize Dee's rest time, while minimizing his time off the court?

Simple really, an old trick of buying more time surrounding the TV timeouts. Weber has done this during the pre conference season, and even in the conference season to maximize Dee's time on the bench while minimizing his time off the floor. What I would like to see is more of a set pattern of getting Dee rest time of two – four minutes a game surrounding these timeouts. If you can get this time, you will have a much more fresh Dee Brown throughout the game, and hopefully you save his legs for when you really need them in March.

The one thing these graphs show is I will not be excited to see Illinois lineup for a game with a short turnaround time like is required in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Getting Dee his time on the bench will be key in these situations, so he can be maximized as much as possible and Illinois' stay in both tournaments is as long as fans hope it can be.

Yes, the majority of this discussion seems grim, but that is because the hangover from the Penn State loss has not yet left me. There is a ton to be happy about when it comes to how Illinois is playing this season.

The Illini have found a dynamic offensive rebounder and defender in Brian Randle.

Rich McBride has stepped up over the last three games and been that consistent third scorer the Illini needed. While he has been criticized by many this season for his shooting and scoring earlier in the season, Rich has been one of the Illini's most consistent players. He has done everything Bruce Weber has asked him to do, and done it well.

After starting off slowly in Big Ten play, Jamar Smith has gotten used to the conference, and he has become the Illini's third guard. He has continued to be one of the most deadly players from behind the three point line in the nation. His on the ball defense has improved to where he is a pest for opposing defenders, and Bruce Weber has showed confidence in his ability by allowing him to close out many games for the Fighting Illini.

After sitting on the bench for most of last season, Shaun Pruitt has shown that he can be a viable scorer in the low post. He had a career game against Indiana when no other Illini players wanted to play, and he has started every game in his sophomore season.

The Illini sit at 20-3 and control their own destiny in the Big Ten Conference race. Luckily, while the Illini have flaws they have to work around, so does every other team in the country. The Illini are in that group of teams below Duke, UConn, Texas, and Villanova that could lose to any one on any given day (see: Penn State) or they could beat any one else on any given day. This will make for an interesting NCAA Tournament, but isn't that what college basketball is all about?


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