Illinois basketball is one of the most intriguing teams in the NCAA this year. They perhaps have the highest ceiling in the Big Ten but have not nearly lived up to it yet. They currently rank eighth in the NCAA on KenPom, 14th in the AP Poll, and seventh in the NCAA NET rankings. This is a good team, but can they contend with the likes of Baylor, Gonzaga, or even Michigan now? They have not shown it, but if they fix the following issues, they will excel from a good team to a great team.
Turning the Ball Over
Illinois is 266th in college basketball in turnover ratio (opponent turnovers versus theirs) at -2.2. Obviously, this is not ideal. They have a tendency to push the pace but with that, they tend to also throw away the ball recklessly. Part of this issue has to do with Ayo Dosunmu, who seemingly has the ball in his hands every possession, and reasonably so. The other main contributor is perhaps one of the most exciting freshmen in the Big Ten: Andre Curbelo. He has the ability to showcase skills like this:
But sometimes, he will have blunders like this:
He’s also very sneaky.
Dosunmu will clean up his game. He did not average over three turnovers per game in the last two years, so he will have to get back to that level of ball security if the Illini want to take down the likes of Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio State. Guards will turn the ball over, and the Illini pace will allow for turnovers to occasionally happen, but limiting those instances is a key to potentially reaching the Final Four.
Illinois shoots 68.7% from the free-throw line, which is abysmal for a team that is supposed to contend for a title. Outside of Dosunmu, Curbelo, and Trent Frazier, every other player has not reached 70% from the line. When it reaches crunch time, opponents will foul Kofi Cockburn, Da’Monte Williams, or Giorgi Bezhanishvili, all three of whom are shooting worse than last year (Cockburn: 56.3% vs. 67.7%, Williams: 56.3% vs. 70.0%, Bezhanishvili: 42.9% vs. 59.6%).
These are noticeable discrepancies that need to be addressed immediately. Underwood is surely having each of these guys shooting 100 free throws each practice, but at a certain point, it comes down to confidence. These three players have the capability to shoot better from the line. They could be feeling the pressure of a team with hefty expectations, but they need to overcome that obstacle. They cannot lose games from the charity stripe.
Reliance on One Player
If the Illini struggle from the field or turn the ball over one too many times, they have a tendency to avoid motion and rely on isolation ball from Ayo Dosunmu. Brad Underwood commented on the matter after their loss against Missouri earlier this season.: “When one player has 36, you’re not going to win it. I hate that. I don’t like anything about it.”
Dosunmu is a future NBA player, but the rest of this team is strong as well. Cockburn will make it to the show, and Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo will be the anchors of this team when Dosunmu and Cockburn most likely leave after this season. Trent Frazier is a sharp shooter and defensive specialist, as is Da’Monte Williams. This team is loaded with talent and seems to revert to 2018 and 2019 basketball, playing through their best player. Every player understands Dosunmu will take the last shot of the game in a pivotal juntcure. He’s proven clutch in big moments.
If asked to be the second option, about five or six others can make the big play. The offense will run through Dosunmu and Cockburn, but as shown in the unprecedented second half against Northwestern last week, offense can come from anywhere. Once this team stops falling into old ways, they will exceed the already high expectations Illini fans have set for them.
Illinois basketball will make the tournament and probably be a top-five seed at this current moment. Their strength of schedule ranks 21st in the nation, propped up by a tough non-conference schedule and competing in the toughest conference in the NCAA. The drawback is the Illini are 2-3 in Quad 1 games (teams in the top-50 NET rankings on a neutral court).
For reference, Gonzaga, the best team in college basketball, is 4-0. In order to win a title, Illinois has to beat the best. If they eliminate these extremely fixable weaknesses, they can compete with the best teams in the NCAA. They are a top-ten or top-15 team right now. They can be a top-five squad. Once they start playing like it, anything can happen and they could be cutting down the nets at the end of March.