Print and Go Back College Basketball Nation [Print without images]

Friday, January 20, 2012
TMA: Illinois comes crashing back to Earth

By Eamonn Brennan

The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best basketball action. Political leanings aside, it found last night's debate utterly fascinating.

Penn State 54, No. 25 Illinois 52: The last time we saw the Fighting Illini, they were at home against one of the best teams in the country, Ohio State. The crowd was rolling. Brandon Paul was, too. The shooting guard had his dream game, the Platonic ideal of an individual offensive performance, the kind of game he'll remember forever: 43 points, 11-of-15 from the field, 8-of-10 from 3, 13-of-15 from the free throw line. Illinois won 79-74.

Nine days later, that incredible outlier of a performance says as much about this Illini offense as any of Illinois' other substandard performances in Big Ten play to date -- which, for the record, have been pretty much all of them. When you get that kind of night from Brandon Paul, and you just narrowly edge the Buckeyes by five points at home, well, maybe that's not such a good sign.

With the exception of their performance against Ohio State, the Illini have for much of the season -- and particularly in conference play, despite their 4-1 (now 4-2) start -- been one of the more anemic offenses in the Big Ten. Nine days after their rollicking win, and just a few days after Michigan State and Indiana helped them become the only one-loss team in the Big Ten to date, the Illini did what they have been doing for pretty much the entire season, especially since the start of conference play. They turned the ball over way too often.

Last night's turnover rate at Penn State -- 25.0 percent -- led Illinois to score just .93 points per possession at Penn State. It also cemented Illinois' status as the Big Ten's most turnover-prone squad: As ESPN Insider/Basketball Prospectus oracle John Gasaway tweeted Thursday night: "Including tonight's loss @ Penn State, Illinois has given the ball away on 24% of their possessions in-conf, worst in the league by far." When you open Illinois' profile on Statsheet, and peer into its handy four-factors-oriented game stats, you see a team that has given the ball away on more than 22 percent of its possessions five out of six times in conference play. Even against Ohio State, despite all of Paul's brilliance, Bruce Weber's team coughed it up 27.3 percent of the time.

For much of the season, anyone who has watched Illinois play has asked -- nay, begged! -- for the Illini to stop taking outside shots, to stop running so much offense through Paul, to getting beast-mode sophomore forward Meyers Leonard more touches on the low block. It hasn't happened. Sure, Leonard took 12 shots Thursday night; he made six en route to a solid 15-point outing. But Paul and fellow guards D.J. Richardson, Sammy Maniscalco (can I call him Sammy?) and Joseph Bertrand combined for 33 shot attempts of their own. They made nine. Throw in all the turnovers, and of course it's no surprise the Illini scored just 52 points in 56 possessions Thursday night.

This is the great challenge of Illinois' season. The Illini are talented, no question about that. They defend better than any recent Weber-coached team. At the beginning of the year, I expected that the losses of seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale -- three players who insisted on taking inefficient shots, didn't bang on the low block, and (especially McCamey) never stopped the ball at the point of attack the way Weber's guards have to -- would amount to addition-by-subtraction on both ends of the floor.

That's half right. The Illini do defend. That's good news; it will keep them in games and give them chances to win, even on the road. But this iteration is even less efficient on offense than 2011's. Until Leonard becomes the single focal point of this offense -- or at least until Illinois stops giving the ball away so frequently and so carelessly -- this team's ceiling will continue to be much lower than it should. Meanwhile, we should view the Ohio State win less as a grandiose sign of improvement and more like the outlier it truly was.

In short: The Illini commit way too many turnovers to be consistently successful. The end? We'll see.

Vanderbilt 69, Alabama 59: Advanced statistics seem somewhat beside the point here. On Thursday night, the Crimson Tide couldn't make a shot to save their lives. That's why they lost.

To be fair, we should direct some major credit toward the Vanderbilt Commodores, who are, it should be noted, vastly improved on the defensive end of the floor in SEC play. The Commodores are allowing just .90 ppp to opponents in SEC games, the stingiest mark in conference -- a better figure than Kentucky's Anthony Davis-led defensive juggernaut, even. That's a smallish four-game sample size, of course, so it's not quite predictive of the way the rest of the season will unfold, and that figure has been accomplished against some of the worst of what the SEC has to offer: Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia and now Alabama. (Auburn mustered a mere .60 ppp in its game vs. Vanderbilt. That's just ... wow.) No one is expecting Vanderbilt to become a defensive monster, but if some of what the Commodores have done since mid-December is real, even that marginal improvement is, in general, a sign of big things to come. This team can score just fine, as we saw last night. (That Alabama defense is good, folks.) If it can defend a bit, even better.

Besides, while we're at it, we might as well mention this: Winning on the road in conference play is never easy. When you do, credit is deserved. Consider that credit granted.

But in all honesty, this loss was just as much about Alabama as it was about Vanderbilt -- arguably even more so. I mean, just look at the box score: The Crimson Tide shot 23-of-70 from the field and 6-of-24 from beyond the arc. That's a problem. Why? Apparently, despite the Crimson Tide's 26.9 percent accuracy from beyond the arc -- which ranks them among the five worst long-distance teams in the nation -- no one has broached the topic with Alabama that maybe it should, you know, stop shooting 3s.

It's one thing to struggle on offense, as Alabama does. That's OK. This is one of the best defenses in the country. It doesn't have to set the nylon ablaze every time it hits the court. But when you're this bad from long range, and you possess the kind of physical, athletic frontcourt talents Alabama does, you have no business busting 24 3s against anyone. All that does is lead to long rebounds and secondary breaks which negate that incredibly impressive half-court defense in the process. How counterproductive is that?

The good news? Alabama ranks just No. 300 in the nation in 3-point/FGA ratio. It has served the Crimson Tide well thus far. On Thursday night, Alabama saw what happens when it deviates from that identity. I believe the high school kids at the 7-11 by my house have a phrase for this, typically used (as far as I can tell, because I feel old and out of touch every time I want to grab a Coke Zero) when discussing the merits of "Drake:" Stay in your lane. It applies here.

Coverage links of note: Robbi Pickeral was, per the usual, on hand with North Carolina, which pulled away from Virginia Tech in the second half thanks to a burst of sheer euphoric talent -- and much more intensity.

Everywhere else: Duke rolled over Wake Forest, and the highlight of the night was Doc Rivers' face when his son, Austin, took a horrible, let-me-dribble-for-a-few-seconds-and-then-launch 3-pointer that somehow banked in. Doc's face was a mixture of relief and embarrassment. Fellow parents patted him on the back as he sank his head into his hands. Pure, uncut comedy gold. ... Virginia just trounced Georgia Tech on the road, 70-38. ... St. Mary's remained undefeated in WCC play with a win over Pepperdine. ... NC State handled Boston College. ... and out in Pac-12 play, Cal held on for an excellent three-point win at Washington while Stanford fell prey to Washington State's offensive home cooking. It's hard not to see the Bears as the only obvious Pac-12 favorite going forward.