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Monday, January 17, 2005
Kicking Off Illinois Week
Iowa's defense was the main reason it was able to hold off Minnesota on Saturday. That defense will get its biggest test of the season as it goes on the road to challenge the nation's best offense on Thursday. That's right - the best offense in the country. Better than North Carolina. Better than Washington or Wake Forest or anyone else.

How good is Illinois's offense, you ask? Scary good. Illinois is averaging 125 points per 100 possessions, which is the best rate in D-I basketball.

(You might note that Ken Pomeroy rates Illinois as number 2 at about 122 pts / 100 poss. His calculation comes from averaging a team's efficiency for each game. As an example, Illinois would have a points/possession figure for each of their 18 games. Those 18 rates would be averaged to arrive at the 122 figure. I use a team's total points and their aggregate season possessions to make my calculations.)

What makes their offense so good? You'll probably recall this blog's mention of the Four Factors, or the four components that Dean Oliver determined most affect offensive performance. In order of importance, the Four Factors are -
1) Shooting effectiveness, or adjFG%
2) Limiting turnovers, measured by TO / poss
3) Rebounding your own misses, measured by Oreb / (Oreb + Opp Dreb)
4) Getting to the free throw line, measured by FTA / FGA -or- FTM / FGA

Illinois has been very effective at shooting the ball. Their adjFG% of 0.582 is 5th best in the country. Dee Brown, Luther Head, James Augustine and Roger Powell, Jr. all rank among the Big Ten's ten best in this category.

Another important factor in Illinois's success is their ability to hang on to the basketball. They turn the ball over on only 16.3% of their possessions, which is the second lowest rate in the country. So in any given game, where both teams always have the same number of possessions (give or take one or two), Illinois will almost always have more looks at the basket (lower TO rate), and will score more points on their opportunities (higher adjFG%). That's a deadly combination.

For teams that aren't as successful at shooting, offensive rebounding is more important because it gives the team more chances to shoot. Although Illinois is a great shooting team, they're no slouch at rebounding. They rank about 65th nationally, rebounding 38% of their missed field goals and free throws. I saw "about 65th" because I haven't been gathering data on opponent rebounding totals (as needed for the above Oreb rate formula). I use an approximation that usually calculates a team's rebounding rate within 1% of their true rate.

Illinois is much less successful at getting to the free throw line, ranking 301st nationally in FTM/FGA. Only James Augustine cracks the Big Ten's top 20 in this category. I assume that Illinois's success on jump shots decreases their incentive to attack the basket, leading to fewer free throws. Since Luther Head and Dee Brown are both shooting 46% on threes and are two of Illinois's primary weapons, this assumption makes some sense. Also, the press makes a big deal of how the team's passing leads to open shots. Maybe there's something to that - being wide open on more of your shot attempts would seem to mean shooting fewer free throws, all else equal.

To wrap up, let's look at the box score from Illinois's game at Northwestern last Saturday. The first thing we want to do is determine the pace of the game to put everything else in context.

Ill = 61 FGA - 14 Oreb + 8 TO + 0.4 x 16 FTA = 60.4
NW = 42 FGA - 4 Oreb + 16 TO + 0.4 x 16 FTA = 61.4

Averaging the two gives us a game with about 61 possessions - slower than most Big Ten games, but about what you'd expect for a Northwestern game. Northwestern was very hot, shooting 24-42 FG and 8-16 3pt, for a sizzling adfFG% of 67%. Illinois "only" shot 55 adjFG%, but still won by 12. How so?

They took advantage of two of their strengths - turnover rate and offensive rebounding. They only had 8 turnovers on their 61 possessions, or 13%, compared to NW's 26%. They also grabbed 44% of their offensive rebound chances, compared to NW's 21%. Illinois's edge in these two categories gave them 19 more field goal attempts than NW. It's hard to imagine Illinois being outscored when they have that many more opportunities than their opponent.

Coming tomorrow - a look at floor %, offensive ratings and more for each of Illinois's regulars.

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