Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois is an awfully tough team to figure out.  On one hand, they're ranked just 34th at kenpom.com using his advanced stats, so you'd tend to think the 14-2 start was a bit fluky and dismiss them as pretenders.  On the other hand, however, they just spanked Ohio State by almost 20 (an overrated Ohio State, but still) and already own a road win at Gonzaga by double digits and a neutral site win over Butler by nearly 20.  Those are not three wins a fluky team should have.  Their losses (to Missouri on a neutral court and @ Purdue) are both acceptable as well.  No clue what to make of these guys.

One thing is for certain, they're already better off than the last several seasons since they finally jettisoned world's worst coach Bruce Weber and, with Tracey Abrams emergence, they actually have a viable point guard for the first time since the good ole days of Chester Frazier.  Perhaps the best thing about Abrams is that he's allowed Brandon Paul to spend more time off the ball where he's more of a natural, and it's showed as Paul has blossomed into maybe the second best scorer in the league behind DeShaun Thomas.  Paul has always had a tendency to fall a bit too in love with the 3 (which seems to be Illinois' mantra this year - more on that in a minute) but can score from anywhere and excels getting to the rim.  His numbers are up across the board this year and is the best perimeter players the Gophers have faced this season.  If Austin Hollins is going to be the defensive stopper we think he is (and I think he is) this is his big test to prove it.

Paul is certainly a concern for the Gophers, but the entire Illinois team is dangerous because they've simply fallen completely in love with the three-pointer.  They shoot an absolute ton of them (43% of their FG attempts come behind the line - 15th in the country) and make a whole bunch (hitting 36% on the year).  For most of the year I figured this was totally a fluke since they were a terrible shooting team last year (just 30% from three, one of the worst marks in the nation) and it's pretty close to the same team.  It's been going on a bit too long to be a total fluke, however, so perhaps there's an alternative explanation.  Much as how a great coach can make his players better, perhaps a horrendous coach can suppress such simple skills as jump shooting.  Much like the West Canaan Coyotes truly blossomed as a team after Coach Bud Kilmer was forced out, perhaps too these Illini merely needed to cast out Bruce Weber to suddenly all become marksmen from deep.

I don't really know the reason, but suddenly all five major contributors have turned into Ray Allen.  Paul has increased a bit but you could attribute that to playing more off the ball and the "senior step up", and D.J. Richardson is actually a little bit worse, but Abrams (from 26% to 32%), Tyler Griffey (from 29% to 41%) and Joseph Bertrand (from 30% to 44%) all made the Moxon leap.  Can they keep this up?  Really, it depends on if you believe in the Varsity Blues theory, and that's also what's going to swing this game.  The Gophers defend the three pretty well, and the other team they played that shot a lot of them at a high percentage (Richmond) they held to 4-20 shooting.

And yet Richmond is not West Canaan (more like Bainville, am I right?), and Illinois is clearly better and almost everything than Richmond.  The Gophers are much better than Illinois in pretty much every way, and the Gophers are going to absolutely destroy them on the boards.  There's no reason for the Gophers to lose this game, except that Illinois' big strength is what they like to call "the great equalizer" (no, not Lincoln).  Illinois is going to shoot a lot of threes, and probably hit a lot of threes.  Can the Gophers limit that?  Can the Gophers grab 75% of their misses (they get 49.7% on the season, Illinois allows 34% - that's really bad) and just keep scoring every trip down the court?  Who wins the turnover battle?

It all comes down to what you believe.  There's the theory that the Gophers are a Final Four team.  Then there's the theory (not directly competing but you know) that Illinois is the Varsity Blues team, and they won the title.  IT ALL COMES DOWN TO WHAT YOU BELIEVE.

Minnesota 73, Illinois 68.


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