Although the Illinois Fighting Illini have plenty of questions heading into this season, there might be none bigger than those revolving around how Illinois hopes to score inside this year.
The Illini were not a great team last season. Illinois had to overcome significant adversity due to injuries and off the court issues, but when a team has an overall record of 19-14 and makes the NIT, it’s hard to argue the team was that great.
On top of that, Illinois also finished dreadfully. The Illini went 2-6 over the final eight games of the season, including blowout losses to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament and Alabama in the NIT. Any chance of putting a positive finish on the year was done away with as well.
Illini fans may be turning to this season for renewed hope, but unfortunately, many of last year’s issues may find their way onto this year’s team as well.
Perhaps no issue had bigger ramifications for last season than the team’s inability to score inside. Illinois finished at just No. 257 nationally in percentage of points off two point field goals and No. 300 nationally in two point percentage. The raw stats also reflected these struggles as Illinois finished at just No. 188 nationally in two point field goals last year.
Needless to say, Illinois was not exactly an elite interior team.
Unfortunately, not only were these issues reflected in Illinois’ two point numbers, but these numbers also came across in the free throw numbers. After all, if players, and particularly big men, are getting good opportunities inside, it’s going to lead to opponent players committing fouls and trips to the line.
The benefits of free throw attempts are pretty evident. A team gets the opportunity for easy opportunities to score and opponents have to deal with building fouls for the remainder of the game. However, Illinois was not great at getting to the line, which was certainly at least partially a byproduct of an underwhelming interior game.
Overall, Illinois finished at No. 315 nationally in the team’s ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. Along with this, even the team’s best options at getting to the free throw line didn’t hold up well compared to the conference, as can be seen below.
(Stats via KenPom.com.)
What’s even more frustrating regarding these numbers is that Illinois was an excellent free throw shooting team. When the Illini actually got to the free throw line, the team led the entire country in free throw shooting percentage. Maybe the numbers wouldn’t have held with more attempts, but it’s still likely that Illinois would have been pretty good from the charity stripe.
Some of Illinois’ issues may change heading into this season, but the offensive issues inside could carryover largely due to the departure of Rayvonte Rice.
Despite being in and out of the lineup last year due to injury, Rice was an excellent player for the Illini. He led the team in overall win shares, offensive rating among contributors, and was the most used player while on the floor. Another area where he did plenty of damage was inside the arc. When he did exit the lineup with injury, things did not go well for Illinois.
(Stats via Sports Reference.)
Rice was not the only player for Illinois that could score inside, but he certainly was one of the team’s best contributors in the area. Overall, he led Illinois’ contributors in two point percentage and was second on the roster in free throw rate. Without Rice, finding an answer to these issues will be even tougher this season.
So, how can Illinois fix its interior offensive game?
Considering that Illinois’ most likely replacement for Rice is Coleman-Lands, who relies heavily on his perimeter game, this could be a difficult question to answer. Looking for improvement from players like Leron Black, Malcolm Hill, and Kendrick Nunn is reasonable, but hoping for them to have numbers to replace Rice’s lost contributions is probably unrealistic.
However, the one player that could help this problem is Mike Thorne, Jr. from Charlotte. Though the competition level was different for Thorne during his time with Charlotte, his interior numbers were pretty good. He made 53.6 percent of his two point attempts and actually had a free throw rate right with Rice’s numbers last year.
In total, the incoming contributions from Thorne combined with other players improving could actually give Illinois a decent shot at not only replacing much of Rice’s production inside, but even improving on it. If so, it would go a long way toward avoiding an underwhelming season like last year.
There’s no guarantee that Illinois can fix its interior game heading into this season, but with several key offseason additions and some improvement, there’s a chance that Illinois can become a much better team inside and finally get back to the NCAA Tournament.