As Basketball Prospectus has said from the beginning, Duke’s defense is predicated on denying three point shots and dunks and forcing teams to make intermediate jumpers. Few teams are equipped to win by taking two point jumpers, but the 2008-09 Illinois team might be the rare team that can win with this strategy. Illinois is dead last in free throw rate among BCS schools, shoots many more twos than threes, but is finding a way to win.
And thanks to two lanky big men in Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, the jump shot is here to stay in Illini country. I don’t know that Illinois can win on a consistent basis with this strategy, but on a night where the shooters couldn't seem to figure out where the three-point line was on Purdue’s floor, (it was the blue line, not the white line), Illinois surprised the Purdue defense scoring 46 of its first 47 points on two pointers. (And thanks to ESPN for catching this stat-geek gem).
Again, I hardly recommend this strategy. In the long haul, I think Illinois needs to learn to draw some fouls. But don’t think that great teams can’t employ the two point jumper in their arsenal. I’ve been watching some of the 2005 Illini season on the Big Ten Network’s Greatest Games feature, and we tend to forget that Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head were not just great three point shooters, they all had a solid intermediate game as well. You saw it in big games against Wake Forest, Gonzaga, and at Michigan St. where the 2005 Illini squad shocked the other team by pulling up short of the paint, and knocking down wide-open 8 foot jumpers.
Update: Big Ten Geeks actually predicted this in the pre-game. Yep, that earns a LHS link. And Spartans Weblog had a nice graphic of the tempo free stats showing that Illinois should not be a surprise team. Note to self: Read more of other blogs.
Here we go again. But not this time.
Illinois was the unluckiest team in the nation last year, losing numerous close games. But further analysis revealed it was not just bad luck. Illinois couldn’t make free throws and therefore couldn’t finish any of the close games last season. This year, most of the poor free throw shooters are graduated, (and as noted above, Illinois isn’t taking any free throws this year), but Illinois still had a major chance to blow a late lead against Purdue.
After committing a foul in the final seconds to allow the game to be tied, and after giving up the first 4 points in overtime, Illinois could have easily hung their heads and lost again.
After Demetri McCamey (an 89% free throw shooter) missed three foul shots, Illinois could have easily caved in and kept the streak of close losses intact.
But not on this night. Illinois was playing too smooth. (See 6 turnovers.) Illinois was playing too unselfishly (See 21 assists.) And on back-to-back nights, a conference favorite went down at home. UConn, Purdue, who's next? This is college basketball.