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Monday, January 10, 2011
Purdue, Illinois rolling Big Ten early

By Eamonn Brennan

These aren't exactly dark-horse candidates we're talking about here. You know about Purdue, and you know about Illinois. But do you know how good both teams have been in the Big Ten? Because both teams have been very, very good.

Let's start with Purdue. The Boilermakers haven't played the toughest schedule the Big Ten has to offer, but they deserve credit for totally dominating that schedule all the same. Purdue is 4-0 in the Big Ten with wins at Michigan, vs. Northwestern, at Penn State and vs. Iowa. All four of those wins have come by double-digits, and Purdue's average margin of victory has been 18.5 points. The Boilermakers have scored 1.18 points per possession and allowed only .91 in conference games to date.

That dominating early performance is thanks not only to stars E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, both of whom have been brilliant, but also to big contributions from point guard Lewis Jackson and standstill sharpshooter Ryne Smith. Purdue still has the meat of the Big Ten left to play, so it won't be long before we find out whether this stuff is thanks to Purdue's awesomeness, its opponents' lack thereof, or a bit of both. For now, though, there's no denying those numbers. The Boilermakers are ballin'.

And what of Illinois? The Illini entered the Big Ten season with two straight disheartening losses under their belts. The first was an inexplicable upset to UIC in the United Center; the second was a much-more-understandable neutral-court loss to Missouri in St. Louis. Following those games, it was fair to ask whether Illinois had what it took to compete in the Big Ten. Bruce Weber's team looked, well, shaky.

Not anymore. Like Purdue, the Illini are off to an undefeated start in Big Ten play. Unlike Purdue, Illinois has made some history in doing so. As the esteemed John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus notes, Illinois has notched two of the best shooting performances of any team in major-conference in the past five years -- the type of shooting performances you don't see every season, let alone every week -- in its first three Big Ten games. To wit:
Now, precisely how ridiculous is it for Illinois to be shooting this well? Think of it this way. Since 2006 and including last night’s games, there have been four instances of a team recording an effective FG percentage of 80 or better in major-conference play. That’s four times out of 3138 games. In other words you should expect to see an 80 eFG happen once for every 785 major-conference games played — keeping in mind that in any entire season there are just 621 major-conference games.

And yet Illinois fans have seen it happen twice in three games. It is historically insane.

In other words, the Illini haven't just been good in their first three Big Ten games. They've been unbelievably, jaw-droppingly, couldn't-miss-if-they-tried good.

Whether this hot shooting is a good thing for the Illini in the long run remains to be seen. Illinois has lost games -- see: UIC -- thanks to its unique unwillingness to substitute some of its trademark 17-foot jumpers for 3-pointers. If the Illini get too used to all these shots falling down and then suddenly go cold, they could lose a few games that, with better shot selection, they might otherwise have won.

But that's all on the horizon. For now, Illinois fans should treat this offensive performance like a quality Friday night: enjoy the euphoria while it lasts and deal with the comedown later. Winning streaks in Big Ten play don't get much better than this.