Every basketball season presents itself with surprises, and the 2012-13 is no different. Perhaps the biggest surprise, just not in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, is Illinois. A forgettable season the year before, which saw the team play very uninspired basketball (6-12 in conference play) and culminated in the termination of head coach, Bruce Weber and the movement of C Meyers Leonard to the NBA. Enter former Ohio head coach and Ohio State assistant coach, John Groce, who has the Fighting Illini at 12-0 and ranked in the top 10 teams in the country.
Illinois began the season winning the Maui Classic, which concluded by defeating Butler in the championship game. The remainder of the schedule hasn’t been entirely soft, as the Fighting Illini has garnered wins against then-# 10-ranked Gonzaga on the road and against an undefeated Eastern Kentucky team this past Sunday afternoon. An intriguing match-up versus Missouri, looms this weekend in St. Louis.
Groce brought with him an up-tempo style of offense that focuses on spreading the floor, allowing his plethora of guards to breakdown defenses off the dribble, quick ball movement/reversal, and creating opportunities off the offensive boards. Brandon Paul, who is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.8 ppg, also leads the team in assists and rebounding. He, along with D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams, and Joseph Bertrand give Illinois four ultra-quick guards who present opponents with a match-up nightmare. Forward Tyler Griffey gives the team another perimeter threat and provides solid defense. The most pleasant surprise may be 6’11” center Nnanna Egwu who has worked incredibly hard to improve his game. Tall and very athletic, Egwu was a non-factor last season, averaging just 1.9 ppg and 1.5 rpg while seeing action in every game. This season, he has become a presence in the paint, averaging 5.8 ppg and 3.9 rpg.
The biggest turn-around offensively has been the Illini’s improved production from behind the arc. Saddled with the conference’s worst 3PT% last season (30%), the team currently ranks third in the conference at just over 39%. The up-tempo style of play does lend itself to turnovers, which will have to be reduced against a very tough Big Ten schedule.
A marked improvement in defense has also been very evident, as Groce has the team playing very aggressive on-ball defense, more use of traps/double-teaming, and coming over top of screens to thwart opposition offenses. Defensive rebounding margin, which was an issue last season, continues to be a problem, though with the spread offense, there has been a major improvement in the total of offensive boards.
The Big Ten schedule undoubtedly will be a grind, not just on Illinois, but with the entire conference. It is highly unlikely that the Fighting Illini will remain undefeated and may even struggle to remain in the conference title discussion, but everyone associated with the Illinois program has to be pleased that the turn-around has happened so quickly and has been evident in the increase in ticket sales. It won’t be cake-walk to come into Champaign and teams will leave Assembly Hall, knowing they have been in a fight.
With two weeks remaining before conference play and the Holiday break approaching, most of the Big Ten schedule will be used as a tune-up and not as a means of testing themselves against equal or better competition. However, two big games are on the docket for Saturday, December 22. Ohio State will try to avenge last season’s loss versus Kansas, as the Jayhawks travel to Columbus. The always spirited rivalry between Illinois and Missouri will take place in neutral St. Louis and figures to be a very up-tempo game.
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Michigan 2. Indiana 3. Ohio State 4. Minnesota 5. Illinois 6. Michigan State 7. Iowa 8. Wisconsin 9. Nebraska 10. Northwestern 11. Purdue 12. Penn State
Deric McKamey is a Midwest Correspondent and Scout for NetScouts Basketball.