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Thursday, December 22, 2011
Can Illinois' offense get back on track?

By Eamonn Brennan

Spoiler alert! The answer to that question is "we'll see."

Here's something a little more definitive, then: If Illinois doesn't turn its offense around by the time the Illini take the floor against Missouri tonight, they have very little chance of hanging with the Tigers. That's for sure.

Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber and Illinois need a big improvement offensively to compete with Missouri.
Missouri is one of the best offensive teams in the country. Illinois is by no means one of the worst this season, but if you've only seen Bruce Weber's team in three of its past four games, you'd be easily convinced to the contrary.

To wit: On Dec. 7, the Illini hosted St. Bonaventure. They won 48-43. They scored .73 points per possession.

On Saturday, the Illini lost 64-48 to UNLV in Chicago. They scored .70 points per possession.

On Monday, the Illini hosted Cornell. They won 64-60. They scored 1.01 points per possession. Wait -- that's not all that bad! It's ... pretty average!

But as the inimitable Big Ten Geeks revealed in their analysis of Illinois' offense Tuesday, that points per possession average was boosted by a nice start and a late surge. In the 41 possessions that came between the first six and the final 17 (in which the Illini scored 1.67 and 1.65 ppp, respectively, Weber's team scored just .63 points on each trip down the floor. No wonder a seemingly overmatched Cornell team managed to hang around so long -- and at Assembly Hall, no less.

What gives? The Geeks point rightfully toward Illinois' bench as one of the culprits:
One glaringly obvious weakness over this rough patch has been the play of the Illinois bench. Against Cornell, seven bench members combined for the following statline: 41 minutes, 0 points, 0-10 FG, 7 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 5 fouls.

If one player put up those numbers, everyone would be asking why he’s even on the team. To be fair, this group includes five freshmen and two inexperienced sophomores, so it’s possible they are hitting the proverbial wall with the semester coming to an end. Regardless, Illinois absolutely must get something out of its bench going forward if it hopes to be a tournament team.

Of course, bench play doesn't explain the entire problem; there are some systemic issues at work here, too. The most obvious of these, when one ganders at Illinois' advanced efficiency profile (subscription required), is stylistic. The Illini might be shooting too many threes. Right now, the Illini are averaging 32.5 percent from beyond the arc. Their free throw rate (a ratio of free throws to field goal attempts) is 32.2 percent. The Illini aren't exactly chucking 3s; their ratio of 3-pointers to field goals is about 36 percent, which is above average but hardly crazy. But that lack of fouls is dragging this offense down, making it difficult to get easy points at the line when shots aren't falling. Far too frequently, especially in the past two weeks, those shots simply aren't going down.

If Weber could fix his team overnight, he'd probably ask them to play through forward Meyers Leonard far more often. Leonard has been fantastic this season, scoring efficiently in the low block and rebounding on both ends of the floor. He almost certainly needs more touches. (Guard Brandon Paul, he of the 93.4 offensive rating and the team-high 26.4 percent usage rate, should probably defer a little more often.) But if Leonard sees double-teams, and he does, the Illini still have to knock down open shots. If they don't, it won't matter how much they try to play through their talented sophomore big man. The offense will still struggle.

Which is why tonight's game with Missouri should be fascinating. The Illini haven't had much time to identify these woes, let alone address them. Keeping pace with the Tigers will be a daunting task. But keep an eye out. The offensive improvement Illinois so desperately requires doesn't need to happen tonight. But if Illinois wants to turn a solid start into a worthy Big Ten finish, major repairs are required.