Thursday, March 1, 2012

Illinois Preview: Near the End of the Road

General Outlook 
The Wolverines took on the Illini in Crisler less than 3 weeks ago, a game that played out much like the one played on the gridiron this past fall. Michigan mostly outplayed the Illini in the first half and yet was only up by a somewhat unsatisfying 6-point margin. For a variety of reasons, Meyers Leonard was a complete non-factor after the opening minutes of the game, and Michigan went on to lead by as much as 14 in the second half before sealing up a comfortable 9-point win.

I've already had the chance to preview the Illini, and not much has changed since I last took a look at this sinking ship. So, this preview will probably be somewhat shorter.

"No, DO NOT give it to the 7'1''
Since we last met, the Illini have continued their losing ways; they've gone 1-3 since the meeting in Ann Arbor. The Illini dropped a close home contest to the Boilers, but the next two losses pretty much representing the dousing with kerosene of Weber's chances to still be the head coach in Champaign next season. Illinois went to Lincoln and got destroyed, losing by 23 and at one point allowing the Huskers to go on a 43-7 run, something so catastrophic that it can't be called a "run" so much as a systematic, unimpeded bludgeoning. Yes, you read that correctly: 43-7. This is the same Nebraska team that often looks like a glorified high school team (no offense, still have the raddest name of all the B1G coaches).

After that, the Illini went on to look completely outclassed against the Buckeyes on the road, the very same Buckeye team that they were able to pick off at home back right before the jukebox eternally set to play Yakety Sax began to follow the team everywhere. The good news is the Illini did pick up a home win against Iowa on Monday that ended that brutal 6-game losing streak. In further efforts to motivate his flailing team, Weber benched Leonard and Paul after a few "practices determines who starts" practices. It's safe to say that Paul and Leonard will be back in the starting lineup, as this ain't no time for motivational ploys. Weber claims otherwise, but I find it hard to believe that either will come off the bench. It's stand up or go home for the Illini, and they will be playing in accordance with this fact.

The Offense
In conference play, the Illini are 7th in ppg given up at 67.6 per. Needless to say, it has not been smooth sailing; Illinois's long depressing month of failure is filled with crooked numbers given up defensively (i.e. 70+). Thankfully for the Illini, they have a guy like Leonard to mitigate some of their defensive lapses, so one can only wonder how bad this defense might be if they didn't have an above average shot-blocker patrolling the paint.

Additionally, Brandon Paul is a relatively active defender on the ball (1.5 spg), as is DJ Richardson to a lesser extent (0.9 spg). So, Michigan will have to be leery in the paint--since getting two fouls on Leonard relatively early in the game might be difficult to accomplish a second time, especially on the road--and the defensive pressure will there on the perimeter. It is senior night, and the Illini need to win this game to slowly push away that match that is currently behind held inches away from the kerosene soaked 2011-12 Illinois campaign. I haven't really kept up with the shifting nuances of the bubble, but if the Illini win out and win 2 games in the BTT, that puts them at 21 wins. I'm saying there's a chance, but I'm also decidedly not a member of the selection committee.

Michigan had very good success against the Illini at home; most notably, inconsistent x-factory types THJ and Smotrycz both pitched in double digit points (15 and 13, respectively). Hardaway attacked the basket, going 3/6 from 2 and making a pair of trips to the free throw line. Alas, Tim has decided that not giving turning real human beings into rageface comics is not his calling in life. Tim will need to replicate his effort the first time around if Michigan wants to escape with the victory, otherwise things could get very dicey, as they often do when you're attempting to get yourself a win on the road by gunning from long range.

The Defense 
Outside of the disheartening performance last Saturday, Michigan has been incredibly stingy (which has to in some part be attributed to Greg Mattison's presence at games). The Wolverines are third in defensive ppg in conference play, spearheaded by some gritastic efforts from Jordan Morgan down low and the consistently solid to very good defense from Trey and Stu on the perimeter.

In Ann Arbor, the Illini showed why they had been having so much trouble on the offensive end despite having talents like Paul and Leonard on the roster. Illinois turned the ball over with alacrity, as they've done throughout most of conference play. The Illini are tied with Minnesota in turnovers per game (14.1), turning the ball over on 21.6% of their offensive possessions. That is awful. Even Brandon Paul, who managed to score 21 while mostly being defended by Stu, turned it over a whopping 7 times.

Conventional wisdom says that if you play solid defense the Illini will self-destruct like so:

Michigan held Leonard to a measly 5 points, which, to be honest, was a product of a puzzling lack of usage and a few attempts around the basket that he just flat out missed. Morgan played good, gritty defense, and I don't want to sell Michigan's team defense short. However, for Leonard to get only 5 attempts from the field in any given game, you'd have to think that Weber is perhaps not a very good basketball coach and entirely deserving of his imminent firing. I rarely go out of the way to call coaches out like that, but come on...five attempts? The only way a player like Leonard gets five attempts on a team like that--with only one other legitimate headliner of a scoring threat--is if the head coach doesn't, as he should, tell his team to "GET THE TALL GUY THE BALL, HE'S 7'1'' FERGODSAKES." Clearly, Weber does not do that (or he doesn't emphasize it...if the guards don't work to feed Leonard the ball, it is ultimately Weber's fault).

I think that it's probably safe to say that Tyler Griffey won't explode for another 18-point effort while Leonard likely won't get only 5 points. Home cooking alone will see him get to the line enough times to get him into the double digits; with a free throw rate of 45.6 in conference play, he gets to the line often.

Who/What To Watch
  • Michigan's 3-point attempts...yes, attempts, but not for the reason you may think. In the process of trying to assimilate advanced stats into my basketball worldview, I've learned that a team's ability to limit 3-point attempts is just as important as the percentage that opponents shoot, if not moreso...which does make sense. In this sense, the Illini are actually pretty good; only the Badgers are allowing less 3-point attempts than Illinois. Michigan averages 23 attempts per game in conference play, and they only put up 16 in the first meeting. Luckily for Michigan, they made 7 of those 16, but I'm not sure that expecting a similar percentage on the road is wise. Even if Michigan wants to throw up 30+ treys--like they have the last two games--I'm not sure that Illinois will even let that happen. This is a little disconcerting, as this means those frenzied chicken-with-its-head-cut-off possessions seem destined for shot clock violations and many other sorts of turnovers. 
  • It's simple enough, but Leonard vs. fouls. If Michigan can coax him into a bad foul early--Vogrich's aggressive baseline drive to draw a foul on him comes to mind--then this is going to be another win; period, end of story, Guaransheed it. 
  • Good THJ vs. Evil Handlebar Mustache-Wearing 3-Point Attempting THJ. Which one will it be? The rims get a little tighter and less forgiving on the road, so if he wants to be a factor he will need to attack early when it is there. Michigan hitting some early threes will go a long way toward opening up the middle of the floor for some of those horizontal "slice" cuts that he has made a living on (when he's decided to operate in 2-point land). 
Meaningless Prediction 
If not for an 18-point effort from Tyler Griffey off the bench, the Illini would've lost in embarrassing fashion in Ann Arbor. However, as mentioned, I find it hard to believe that Leonard will not get to double digit points this time via FT shooting alone. Weber and his players are in desperation mode, which can turn out to be either really good or really bad for an opponent.

Michigan's disappointing loss against Purdue was like the reopening of a scab covering the old wound known as toomanythreesitis. I know that we shoot threes because this is Ann Arbor and THIS IS WHAT WE DO, but shooting 30+ threes is not a tenable strategy in the short term or in tournament play. When you adjust for home court and a few players' points going way up (Leonard) or way down (Griffey), I think this one shakes out to a nail-biter. As bad as Illinois has been, a close win would be nothing to be ashamed of. For some reason, I'm feeling a Trey Burke shot to put Michigan ahead on Michigan's last possession after a 39+ minutes of back and forth generic Big Ten ball. Michigan 62, Illinois 60. 

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