John Groce's Fighting Illini have started off the 2013-14 campaign with a respectable, but not overly impressive, 9-2 record. Illinois' two losses have come away from home, against Georgia Tech and Oregon, while their best win to date came at UNLV on Rayvonte Rice's last-second layup.
Illinois faces a pair of rivals to close out their nonconference slate. First, the Illini travel to St. Louis to take on the undefeated and No. 23 Missouri Tigers, hoping to end a four-game losing skid against Mizzou. One week later, the orange and blue travel up to Chicago to face the Illinois-Chicago Flames, whom defeated the Illini at the United Center back in 2010.
Big Ten play tips off on New Years Eve when the Illini play host to another rival, the Indiana Hoosiers. After hosting Penn State, Illinois then travels to Wisconsin and Northwestern to complete their first quarter of the B1G slate. Thus far, Illinois has played well but certainly has areas to improve on. Here are some impressive stats to take a peek at regarding this year's version of the Fighting Illini.
Through 11 games, Illinois has assisted on 134 baskets while turning the ball over 121 times, good for a 1.1 assist-turnover ratio. Last season, Illinois only held a 0.9 assist-turnover ratio while the 2011-12 squad's mark was similar.
The 2011-12 Illini squad's assist-turnover ratio was 1.3. Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams were each turnover machines during the past two seasons; though, Abrams' decision-making and carefulness with the ball in his hands has improved.
No player on the roster turns the ball over more than 1.9 times per game. Abrams, the team's primary ball-handler, has the most TO's. Abrams has also improved as a passer with 3.4 assists, just behind backup point guard Jaylon Tate's 3.5 dimes. Tate also leads the team in assist-turnover ratio at a 3.5 mark, dishing out 38 assists while only committing 11 turnovers as a true freshman ball-handler.
Sporting a 9-1 record prior to last Saturday's heartbreaking loss to Oregon, Illinois had held every single opponent under 70 points this season with Georgia Tech dropping 67 points in their lone early-season defeat. Oregon just barely eclipsed that mark last weekend, knocking off U of I by a 71-64 score.
With the new rules and emphasis on less physical play in college basketball, Illinois has not been a victim yet. Teams are shooting more free throws, leading to higher-scoring games; though, I don't think the Illini have blatantly seen the effects on either end of the court.
Illinois will need to stay out of foul trouble once they get to playing against physical Big Ten squads. With only 10 scholarship players, everyone will see playing time on this year's roster. Nnanna Egwu needs to play smart on the defensive end as he cannot afford to pick up early cheap fouls that plagued him as a sophomore.
Illinois' frontcourt has been highlighted as a weakness before and during the season; though, through 11 games, the Illini have been a stellar offensive-rebounding squad. Illinois only has four players listed as forwards or centers on their roster: Nnanna Egwu, Jon Ekey, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan.
Only Egwu is a returning member of last year's team, along with guards Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams. Despite the fresh faces, Illinois holds a 33.3 percent offensive rebounding rate, meaning that one out of every three boards they pull in is off their own missed shots.
Ekey leads the team with 26 offensive rebounds, followed closely by Egwu, Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice's 23, 22 and 21 offensive boards, respectively. Though Illinois may not be able to hold up their 137 offensive rebound-274 defensive rebound trend in the rugged Big Ten, they have certainly proved to be a tough team that never lacks effort. And though it's a different level of basketball, it should be noted that the Detroit Pistons lead the NBA with a 31.4 percent offensive rebounding rate to put this in perspective.
Illinois' first loss this season came on Dec. 3 at Georgia Tech. Just the week before, the team won a pair of two-point contests, defeating UNLV 61-59 and IPFW 57-55. Despite winning ugly early on, Illinois has remained unblemished in November contests since Nov. 18, 2010.
In that game, Illinois lost 90-84 against Texas in a game played at Madison Square Garden as part of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic. While Illinois' early season nonconference competition was relatively weak this season, don't forget about their Maui Invitational victories last November.
On their trip to Hawaii in November 2012, Illinois won four straight games against Hawaii, USC, Chaminade and Butler. Each of the three Maui Invitational wins were in blowout fashion; though, the Illini did receive a scare from the Hawaii Rainbows the weekend before the invite. Next November, head out to Las Vegas to see Groce's squad take on the likes of Baylor, Memphis and Indiana State.
Though the trio of Egwu, Abrams and Bertrand were Illinois' only returning scholarship players from a season ago and all three players start this season, none lead Illinois in any of the three major individual statistical categories: points, rebounds and assists.
Rice easily leads the team in scoring, pouring in 17.7 points per night, followed by Abrams' 11.5 points. Ekey is the team's leading rebounder, pulling in 6.0 rebounds on average, while Rice follows closely behind with a 5.5 rebound average.
Finally, Tate leads the team in assists, though by the slimmest of margins. Tate has dished out 38 assists, good for a 3.5 assist average, while Abrams has distributed 37 assists, or a 3.4 assist average, despite Tate playing 10.7 minutes less per game than Abrams.
Coming into the season, Illinois had plenty of question marks with so many newcomers. Those newcomers have answered the call, as is evidenced by these numbers, but need the experienced returning players to take their games up a notch.