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Mizzou vs. Illinois: Know your Braggin' Rights rival

It must officially be basketball season on this site if I'm actually posting previews, huh?



Illinois (12-0)

Pace (No. of Possessions)
Points Per Possession (PPP)
1.15 0.93
Points Per Shot (PPS)
1.29 1.13
2-PT FG% 50.6% 45.7%
3-PT FG% 38.6% 32.1%
FT% 70.5% 64.2%
True Shooting % 56.9% 49.8%

UI Opp.
Assists/Gm 12.0 11.6
Steals/Gm 7.8 5.4
Turnovers/Gm 12.7 15.3
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO
1.56 1.11

UI Opp.
Expected Off. Rebounds/Gm 11.3 11.6
Offensive Rebounds/Gm 12.2 10.7
Difference +0.9 -0.9

If you watched John Groce's Ohio teams, you know this: His teams are fun to watch. They aren't always good necessarily -- in four years at Ohio, he went 34-33 in two seasons and 51-23 in the other two -- but they are assertive and confident on offense, and if the 3-point shots are falling, they can beat absolutely anybody. In 2010, Groce's Bobcats went 4-0 in the MAC tournament (after going just 7-9 in regular season MAC play), winning two overtimes to qualify for the NCAA tourney. A 14-seed, the Bobcats then simply smoked an excellent Georgetown team in the first round, 97-83. They made 13 of 23 3-pointers in that game (it felt like about 30, actually), forced 18 turnovers, went on a 22-8 run in the first half, and continued to make clutch shot after clutch shot to keep their distance in the second half.

Star guard Armon Bassett (once a Missouri commit) foolishly jumped to the pros following this performance, and Ohio went just 19-16 the next season. But behind guards D.J. Cooper (a star in the 2010 run, too) and Walter Offutt, the Bobcats once again caught fire at the right time. They lost three of four games in early January, then won 16 of their next 19 to reach the NCAAs once again. You know how good Michigan is this year? Ohio beat the Wolverines by five in the Round of 64 last year, then took out South Florida, then went to overtime with North Carolina before eventually falling. His young Bobcats forced a ton of turnovers, made 3-pointers, and went 29-8 despite deficiencies on the glass and a propensity for fouling too much.

Groce's first Illinois team doesn't precisely follow the Ohio script, but when they're hot, it is because of the same fun, aggressive pick-and-roll offense Groce perfected in The Other Other Athens. Six different Illini take at least two 3-pointers per game, and aside from Tracy Abrams, they are typically pretty good at making them. They win the ball-handling battle, though they aren't quite as good in this regard as Ohio was last year, and while they are not amazing on the glass, they aren't bad.

Illinois is energized and confident, and the Illini have played their best games against their best opponents in 2012. This should be a really interesting battle. Honestly, because of interesting matchups and Illinois' own volatility, I could see either team pulling away for a double-digit win.

Ken Pomeroy Stats

UI Offense vs MU Defense Ranks

UI Offense MU Defense Advantage
Efficiency 31 52 UI
Effective FG% 35 15 MU
Turnover % 79 293 UI big
Off. Reb. % 69 65 push
FTA/FGA 263 12 MU big
MU Offense vs UI Defense Ranks

MU Offense UI Defense Advantage
Efficiency 19 48 MU
Effective FG% 92 134 MU
Turnover % 87 98 push
Off. Reb. % 7 136 MU big
FTA/FGA 180 100 UI

Where the Illini are weakest

Illinois is aggressive in its ball movement, but the Illini don't necessarily attack the rim with any regularity. Only four players have shot even 16 free throws this season (Mizzou has five, and three others have at least 13, and Mizzou isn't that great at drawing fouls, either), so if the 3-pointers aren't falling, the Illini don't necessarily have a great Plan B. On defense, Illinois is fine. They are decent at forcing turnovers, but Mizzou should be able to pull down quite a few offensive rebounds if they aren't shooting very well; and against Illinois, there's at least a chance Mizzou will shoot pretty well (Illinois is 136th in 3PT% defense, 143rd in 2PT%).

Two other relative weaknesses: Illinois doesn't have much of a bench (226th in Bench Minutes) and, despite the nature of the pick-and-roll, doesn't necessarily pass to set up shots. I'm not sure how, but they rank 321st in Assists Per Field Goal Made. If nothing else, that tells me the Pick is more important to Illinois than the Roll (though if you leave a picker like Tyler Griffey uncovered, he will make the jumper).

Where they are best

When the offense clicks, it seemingly all clicks. Illinois is 38th in 3PT% on offense, 90th in 2PT%. And 43 percent of their shots are 3-pointers, which means (since we've internalized Ken Pomeroy's lessons on this by now) that they are going to dictate a good portion of the game. Once the shot goes in the air, there's nothing you can do about it, and Illinois is going to shoot a lot of 3-pointers. Right now, they're taking 25.9 longballs per game, which would make even Clarence Gilbert blush.

(Okay, that's not entirely true. Mizzou's 1999-00 team, which featured Gilbert, Kareem Rush, Brian Grawer and minimal inside presence, also attempted 25.9 3-pointers per game. But think about how volatile that team was, capable of winning or losing just about any game on the schedule. The Tigers beat Kansas by 22, almost beat the Jayhawks again in Lawrence, and lost to both Winthrop and SLU. Illinois is like that, only with better bigs.)

Illinois is also solid in the ball-handling department: the Illini are 53rd in Steals% on offense. They also block shots (27th in Block% defense) and avoid getting their own shots blocked (41st in Block% offense). That's what happens when you've got solid length (43rd in Effective Height). Only two Illinois regulars are shorter than 6'6, and one of them (D.J. Richardson) is 6'3.

(Mizzou is 17th in Effective Height, just so you're aware.)

Illinois' Season to Date

  • Wins (Team Rank is from
    at No. 13 Gonzaga (85-74)
    vs. No. 46 Butler (78-61)
    No. 72 Georgia Tech (75-62)
    vs. No. 121 USC (94-64)
    No. 139 Gardner Webb (63-62)
    No. 188 Eastern Kentucky (66-53)
    No. 194 Western Carolina (72-64)
    at No. 221 Hawaii (78-77, OT)
    No. 230 St. Francis (89-64)
    No. 238 Norfolk State (64-54)
    No. 295 Colgate (75-55)
    vs. Chaminade (84-61)
  • Losses

So Illinois has beaten its three Top 100 opponents by an average score of 79-66 ... and has beaten is four opponents ranked between 130-230 by an average score of 70-64. The Illini haven't played nearly enough games to get a true "They play their best against the best teams" label -- they have, after all, played only two games versus Top 70 teams -- but they are clearly, ridiculously volatile right now. That is kind of scary, isn't it, knowing you aren't necessarily in control of your outcome against them? If the 3's are falling, there's not much you can do about it. You're always going to be a step behind. Just ask Gonzaga. Illinois made 21 of 51 3's against Gonzaga and Butler (41%) and just 25 of 74 in iffy games versus Hawaii, Gardner Webb and Western Carolina (34%).

Illinois Player Stats

Player AdjGS*/Gm GmSc/Min Line
Brandon Paul (6'4, 200, Sr.) 18.7 0.57 32.7 MPG, 18.8 PPG (54% 2PT, 40% 3PT, 72% FT), 5.1 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 2.7 TOPG
D.J. Richardson (6'3, 195, Sr.) 11.3 0.35 32.6 MPG, 11.5 PPG (44% 2PT, 35% 3PT, 80% FT), 4.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.2 TOPG
Tracy Abrams (6'1, 185, So.) 9.7 0.34 28.0 MPG, 11.5 PPG (53% 2PT, 29% 3PT, 64% FT), 3.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 3.1 TOPG
Joseph Bertrand (6'6, 195, Jr.) 9.5 0.45 21.0 MPG, 8.6 PPG (67% 2PT, 48% 3PT, 80% FT), 4.5 RPG, 1.2 TOPG
Tyler Griffey (6'9, 220, Sr.) 8.4 0.36 23.5 MPG, 8.9 PPG (54% 2PT, 43% 3PT, 75% FT), 3.5 RPG, 1.2 TOPG
Nnanna Egwu (6'11, 235, So.) 5.2 0.23 23.0 MPG, 5.8 PPG (45% 2PT, 33% 3PT, 67% FT), 3.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.1 TOPG, 3.2 PFPG
Sam McLaurin (6'8, 220, Sr.) 4.9 0.24 20.3 MPG, 4.5 PPG (48% 2PT, 52% FT), 4.1 RPG, 1.1 TOPG
Myke Henry (6'6, 230, So.) 3.5 0.29 11.9 MPG, 4.3 PPG (35% 2PT, 38% 3PT, 64% FT), 2.7 RPG
Devin Langford (6'7, 200, RSFr.) 1.5 0.27 5.2 MPG, 0.6 PPG, 1.3 RPG

* AdjGS = a take-off of the Game Score metric (definition here) accepted by a lot of basketball stat nerds. It redistributes a team's points based not only on points scored, but also by giving credit for assists, rebounds (offensive & defensive), steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls. It is a stat intended to determine who had the biggest overall impact on the game itself, instead of just how many balls a player put through a basket.

  • Highest Usage%: Paul (28%), Abrams (26%), Henry (23%).
  • Highest Floor%: Bertrand (48%), Paul (42%), Griffey (41%)
  • Highest %Pass: Abrams (56%), Paul (50%), Richardson (47%)
  • Highest %Shoot: Henry (61%), Griffey (50%), Egwu (49%)
  • Highest %Fouled: McLaurin (22%), Paul (13%), Henry (12%)
  • Highest %T/O: Henry (12%), McLaurin (11%), Bertrand (10%)

Stopping Brandon Paul doesn't necessarily guarantee a win over Illinois, but it goes a pretty long way. He's easily got the team's highest Usage Rate, passes off of the pick-and-roll enough to keep you honest, and avoids turnovers rather well considering how much he handles the ball. (Tracy Abrams, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily avoid them that well.) We've heard a lot about how Frank Haith thinks Keion Bell can be a defensive stopper; now would be a pretty good time to prove it.

Paul and Richardson combine for 14.1 3-point attempts per game, but Paul did show an incredibly well-rounded game in Illinois' lovely win versus Gonzaga. He was 5-for-9 from 3-point range, 5-for-7 on 2-pointers, and 10-for-11 on free throws, and he had three assists, three steals, two turnovers (BCI: 3.0), and even four rebounds and two blocks. He was custom-built for the Groce system. Abrams and Richardson are a bit more volatile. Richardson is just a 35-percent shooter from long range and doesn't bring much else to the table (he avoids turnovers pretty well), and Abrams makes just 29 percent of his 3's and turns the ball over a ton. If Abrams or Richardson are hot from long range, be very, very afraid.

And then there are Illinois' bigs. Tyler Griffey was also better built for this system than Bruce Weber's (he is 18-for-42 on 3-pointers and basically serves as a perimeter player on offense and a big man on defense). And a pair of role players bring solid size to the table: Nnanna Egwu blocks shots and makes some jumpers, and Sam McLaurin is very, very active on the offensive glass. But this team is dominated by its backcourt. Mizzou should hold the advantage up front, especially with its depth, but it won't matter if it cannot patrol the 3-point line with any reliability.

Keys to the Game

  1. The 3-pointer. Duh. I've probably explained this one enough already.

  2. The glass. Mizzou has enough up front to win this category pretty easily, but if Illinois is able to break even, Mizzou is basically hostage to whether Illinois is making its 3's or not. And on the flipside, Illinois is built to win the BCI battle. If Mizzou is doing well here, Illinois will probably have to make at least 40% of its 3's to win.

  3. The supporting cast. This is the biggest game of the season for both teams. According to Ken Pomeroy's rankings, Mizzou has played two teams better than Illinois (No. 4 Louisville and No. 10 VCU) and Illinois has played one better than Mizzou (Gonzaga), but the build-up for this one is completely different than any other game from this season. We know the primary contributors -- Paul, Richardson, Phil Pressey, Laurence Bowers -- but the supporting cast often decides these rivalry games. Does Tyler Griffey or Tracy Abrams get rolling for Illinois? Might this be Jabari Brown's (or Stefan Jankovic's, or Negus Webster-Chan's) coming out party? And lord knows Alex Oriakhi played in plenty of intense Big East battles in his pre-Mizzou life.


I will feel pretty good about this game right up until D.J. Richardson or Tracy Abrams makes his first 3-pointer. Then I will be concerned. Mizzou has plenty of matchup advantages here, and according to the numbers Illinois really only has one big advantage (their ball-handling). Mizzou has a bit more margin for error, I think, just because of its depth advantages and diversity. But I meant it when I said above that either team could win by double digits. Mark me down for a seven-point Mizzou win (we'll say 75-68), but the fear factor here is pretty high.