Illinois was unranked in the preseason and projected to be a mid-tier Big Ten team. So it came as something of a surprise when the Illini raced out to an undefeated start, capped off by a big win over Gonzaga.
"There are how many undefeated teams in the country now?" the head coach asked after his Illini had defeated Mark Few's Bulldogs. "Somebody's got to notice."
So much for last season and ex-coach Bruce Weber's comments.
This season Illinois was unranked in the preseason (and indeed did not receive a single vote in the AP poll), and projected to be a mid-tier Big Ten team. So it has come as something of a surprise that John Groce's team has jumped out to a 12-0 start, capped off by a big 85-74 win over Gonzaga in Spokane.
Now, entering their annual Bragging Rights game against Missouri in St. Louis, the Illini are ranked No. 10 in the nation. But the eerie similarity of this team's last two early-season runs begs the question. Could last season's collapse happen again?
Anything can happen, of course, but the evidence suggests it's unlikely that Illinois will repeat their miserable run from last February and March. Let's take a closer look, not only at just how bad things got in Champaign last season but also at how this current team measures up in relation to this season's top contenders.
More than a collapse, an implosion
When Brandon Paul walked off the floor last season having scored 43 points against Ohio State, Illinois was 15-3. From that point forward, however, the Illini went just 2-12. The fact that one of those two victories would come against an eventual NCAA tournament No. 1 seed (Michigan State) would help mask the severity of this team's decline -- but not for long.
Over their last 13 Big Ten games, the Illini were outscored by 0.11 points per possession, meaning this team's performance over that stretch was roughly equivalent to what we saw all season long from a team like Penn State (who, appropriately enough, tipped off the downturn with a 54-52 win over Weber's team in State College). The problem was simple: Illinois simply couldn't score. In particular, the Illini's perimeter attack in the late season was nonexistent, as were offensive rebounds and free throws. Then in February, to add insult to injury, Illinois' defense also gave way.
In their season-ending 64-61 loss to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, the Illini did not attempt a single free throw. Weber was fired the next day, and a team that in January had been projected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament didn't even get a bid to the NIT. It was a cave-in the likes of which you will very rarely see.
Which, in a way, is good news for this year's Illinois team.
Better than last season
Comparing last December's 10-0 Illini with this season's 12-0 version, we find that the numbers like John Groce's team more than the 2011-12 group. This season's team has played a tougher early-season schedule, and while there have undoubtedly been some close games along the way, Illinois has managed to arrive at this point undefeated.
Of course the real test of this team will be how well they fare not against history but against their opponents this season. This week I analyzed the per-possession performance of the nine teams that currently sit atop the polls, and just outside that group of nine teams sits Illinois. So let's go ahead and throw Illinois into this same elite company, create a 10-team group, and see how the Illini compare.
So far this season Illinois has outscored their opponents by 0.21 points per possession, and in the 10-team group comprised of the Illini and the polls' nine early-season "contenders," Groce's team claims the No. 8-rated strength of schedule. In other words, Illinois has recorded the lowest per-possession scoring margin of any team in this group, and they've done so against one of the weaker schedules.
To my eye these performance metrics are simply reinforcing the conventional wisdom which states that there's a "drop-off" this season after the first nine teams or so. But let's keep this discussion in context, and focused on the Illini. On the eve of Illinois' trip to Maui in November, the question I was being asked was simply whether or not Groce's team could make the NCAA tournament. Now my colleague Joe Lunardi has them projected as a No. 4 seed.
Indeed, Illinois has played well enough to earn a seed on one of the top four lines. Paul in particular has had an early season that can fairly be ranked alongside that of any shooting guard in the country not named "C.J. McCollum." The 6-4 senior has made 40 percent of his threes and 54 percent of his twos while carrying a larger load on offense than any of his teammates. Paul also draws six fouls per 40 minutes, and he and fellow senior D.J. Richardson (who's also off to a strong individual start) are the two players that Groce leaves on the floor more or less at all times.
Groce has additionally received key contributions from 6-9 senior Tyler Griffey, who's matched Paul's accuracy from both sides of the arc while providing some occasional, and much needed, late-game heroics. And while Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin is no threat to wrest leading-scorer honors away from Paul anytime soon, the 6-8 senior has proven his ability to extend Illinois' possessions by crashing the offensive glass.
Illinois fans may have bad memories of early-season promise turning to late-season pain, and clearly there will be challenges presented to this season's team -- if for no other reason than the Illini play in the toughest conference in the nation. But last season's collapse put the "extreme" in "extreme outlier." In the present tense, Paul is beastly, Groce is on an amazing personal run (the former Ohio coach is 17-1 since the tip-off of last season's MAC tournament), and the Illini are better than anyone expected just six short weeks ago. This team looks poised to erase the bad memories left behind by 2011-12.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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