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How Close Were The Illinois Fighting Illini To The NCAA Tournament In 2014-15?

A look back at the 2014-15 season for the Illini through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations for the season.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 BTPowerhouse Recapitulation Series will look back at the season of each Big Ten team through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations in 2014-15.  The series will be released during early summer in reverse order of conference standings, meaning the last place team will be reviewed first and the Big Ten champions will be reviewed last.

***

The 2014-15 season was an underwhelming one for Illinois.  Though the Illini returned to the postseason for the third straight season and finished with several key wins, there was no bright finish to the season.  Though Illinois was far from being a "sure thing" before the season, it was a roster that had a good mix of talent, experience, and depth.  A Big Ten title might have been unlikely, but an NCAA Tournament appearance was well within their grasp.  Unfortunately, the team suffered too many losses and winnable games and were unable to get their bid to the Big Dance and ultimately, suffered a first round exit in the NIT.

Let's look back at it it in its entirety.

1. Preseason Expectations

Entering the season, there was a lot of variation on where Illinois stood, but generally, there was a lot of optimism about the program and the team.  Though Illinois had failed to make the NCAA Tournament during the 2013-14 season, they brought back the vast majority of that team and were adding two key recruits including 4-star prospect Leron Black.  Along with this, the Illini had just fallen short of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid in 2013-14.  This was a team with plenty of talent that returned most of their lineup and add two more options.  Illinois was far from a proven product coming into the season, but there was certainly enough there to think they would be a quality team.  In fact, I thought highly enough of the team to put Illinois at #5 in my Big Ten preview.

Here was my preseason storyline for Illinois:

The biggest storyline for Illinois this season will be whether John Groce can take a surprisingly deep and talented roster back to the NCAA Tournament.  Despite being regulated to the NIT last season, the Illini really developed over the course of the season and were a lot better than many think.  The team did lose 2 key players in the offseason and another to injury, but they bring many young guys back and have added 2 new and exciting recruits.  The Fighting Illini may not be as stacked as teams like Wisconsin, but this roster has a wide distribution of depth, experience, and talent.  There may be no other team more primed for a breakout than Illinois.

The Big Ten writers were not quite as high on Illinois as I was coming into the season and slotted them in at #8 in the preseason standings behind Iowa and ahead of Indiana.  Again, there were reasons to believe that Illinois would take steps forward, but there were also reasons to doubt whether the Illini could take the necessary steps forward to actually compete at the top of the Big Ten.  Still though, there was a lot of optimism about the team and their potential to make the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15.

2. Non-Conference Play

Though preseason thoughts were mixed on the Illini, with so much returning and a relatively managable non-conference slate, most expected Illinois to get off to a good start.  They did have their share of significant challenges, but 10 to 12 wins seemed relatively realistic and if Leron Black or a returning player took a huge step forward, perhaps the team could even run the table.  Here is how things ended up playing out.

Illinois 2014-15 Non-Conference:
  • Win (1-0): Georgia Souther, 80-71
  • Win (2-0): Coppin St., 114-56
  • Win (3-0): Austin Peay, 107-66
  • Win (4-0): Brown, 89-68
  • Win (5-0): Indiana St., 88-62
  • Win (6-0): Baylor, 62-54
  • Loss (6-1): Miami (Fl), 70-61
  • Win (7-1): American, 70-55
  • Loss (7-2): Villanova, 73-59
  • Loss (7-3): Oregon, 77-70
  • Win (8-3): Hampton, 73-55
  • Win (9-3): Missouri, 62-59
  • Win (10-3): Kennesaw St., 93-45
The Illini got off to a nice start in their first few games of non-conference play.  Relatively speaking, they had 5 warmup games before facing Baylor on a neutral court.  Some of these games were a bit closer than some would have liked, but Illinois was never seriously challenged.  Following that, Illinois pulled off a massive win when they "upset" Baylor on a neutral court.  The Bears were hyped up before the season and ultimately, entered the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed.  With just 6 games under their belts, Illinois not only looked like an NCAA Tournament team, but a potential Top 25 and nationally competitive team.

That's when things got a bit tougher.  Illinois lost a relatively competitive road game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on the road against Miami, knocked off a bad American team at home, and then lost back-to-back games against Villanova and Oregon.  At that point, Illinois was sitting at 7-3 with one good win, one loss to a very good team, and two losses to above average teams.  Resume-wise, Illinois wasn't sitting that badly.  However, in reality, losing to eventual NIT team Miami was a big blow and losing in a virtual home game against Oregon in Chicago was a rough loss.  If Illinois grabs two wins there, things look much, much differently.

Following their rough stretch in early December, the Illini finished non-conference play with a win over Hampton, an exciting win over Missouri thanks to a huge shot from Rayvonte Rice, and a win of Kennesaw St.  The fans certainly enjoyed the win over Missouri, but thanks to the Tigers' horrendous play, the win didn't end up meaning all that much.  At the conclusion of non-conference play, Illinois wasn't in bad shape, but they would need to do a lot more to put together an NCAA Tournament resume.

3. Conference Play

Despite Illinois' lukewarm play in non-conference play, the team would get plenty of opportunities early in Big Ten play to grab quality wins for its resume.  In fact, four of its first five games would be on the road including tough matchups against Maryland and Ohio State and tricky teams like Michigan and Northwestern.  Still, if Illinois could take care of business and pull off one upset and build off that progress, the team could be in good position for March.  Here is how things ended up playing out.

Illinois 2014-15 Big Ten Play:
  • Loss (0-1): Michigan, 73-65 OT
  • Loss (0-2): Ohio State, 77-61
  • Win (1-2): Maryland, 64-57
  • Loss (1-3): Nebraska, 53-43
  • Win (2-3): Northwestern, 72-67
  • Loss (2-4): Indiana, 80-74
  • Win (3-4): Purdue, 66-57
  • Loss (3-5): Minnesota, 79-71
  • Win (4-5): Penn State, 60-58
  • Win (5-5): Rutgers, 66-54
  • Win (6-5): Michigan State, 59-54
  • Win (7-5): Michigan, 64-52 OT
  • Loss (7-6): Wisconsin, 68-49
  • Loss (7-7): Michigan State, 60-53
  • Loss (7-8): Iowa, 68-60
  • Win (8-8): Northwestern, 86-60
  • Win (9-8): Nebraska, 69-57
  • Loss (9-9): Purdue, 63-58
Despite finishing non-conference play on a 3 game winning streak, the Illini struggled significantly when they entered conference play.  Not only did they lose their first 2 games on the road against Michigan and Ohio State, but they lost 3 of their first 4 games, 4 of their first 6 games, and 5 of their first 8 games.  Illinois really didn't enter Big Ten play in a "hole" in terms of making the NCAA Tournament, but they were in a hole just 8 games into conference play.

The big thing here was that Illinois was not just losing to great teams or on the road.  If Illinois was losing games on the road to teams like Maryland and Wisconsin, it would be one thing, but losing games to Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska were damaging to their resume.  The only team to make the postseason out of that group was Indiana and the Illini ended up losing to them at home in a very winnable game.  The drop was evident on KenPom as well, as Illinois dropped from #44 coming into its opening Big Ten game to #71 through 8 games of Big Ten play.

After that, Illinois did start to get things back on track.  They began by knocking off back-to-back wins over bottom Big Ten teams in Penn State and Rutgers.  They weren't great wins, but at least Illinois had avoided upsets.  Then they went on the road and scored a massive win over Michigan State.  In hindsight, that very well could have been the single most impressive win of Illinois' season.

The Spartans had 81.0% odds to win that matchup against Illinois at home and were trying to find their stride heading into late February and March.  In fact, it marked Illinois' second straight win over Michigan State on the road, which has only been done 3 other times since the 2001-02 season.  It was a massive win for the Illini and many felt it was the marquee win the team needed to get on the right side of the bubble heading toward the postseason.

Following their upset over MSU on the road, Illinois pulled off an overtime thriller against Michigan, partially getting revenge for their overtime loss to the Wolverines earlier in the year.  At that point, they were 17-8 overall and 7-5 in Big Ten play.  Realistically, if the team just beats its easier opponents and wins one quality game in their final 6 regular season games, they're sitting pretty well heading into the postseason.

Unfortunately, the Illini followed that up by getting thrashed on the road against Wisconsin, losing to Michigan State at home, and losing a relatively close, but never really in doubt game against Iowa on the road.  In the span of 10 days, the team had gone from sitting pretty to the wrong side of the bubble.  Illinois wasn't favored in any of these games at tip-off according to KenPom, but dropping the 3 in a row would put a ton of pressure on its final 3 games.

Illinois followed with back-to-back wins over Northwestern and Nebraska, but fell in a tight battle on the road to Purdue, putting their final regular season record at 19-12 and 9-9 in the Big Ten.  For a team that held wins over Baylor, Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue in its pocket, those were pretty underwhelming records.  The interesting thing was that Illinois "took care of business" for the most part.  The issue was that the team could not win enough winnable games to put together a great record.
2014-15 Illinois Performance By KenPom Odds:
kp oddzzzz illinoissss
KenPom game odds are certainly not perfect, but generally, they're a decent measure of a team's likelihood to win any given game.  The Illini really avoided any significant upset during in the regular season in 2014-15 with a 12-0 record in games where they were at least a 75% favorite.  Even Wisconsin was upset by Rutgers, so that's a noteworthy accomplishment for any team.

However, the Illini's 6-9 record in games where they had between 25% and 75% odds to win is the significant one here.  It's probably unrealistic to demand Illinois win many games where they had less than 25% odds to win, but it was the games against Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska and so on that cost this team in regular season and specifically, Big Ten play.  In fact, not only were these games winnable on paper, but over 85% of these games were decided by 10 points or less.  If Illinois bumps its play even a little bit, the wins were there for the taking.

Of course, Illinois did lose these games and headed to Chicago with an underwhelming 9-9 record in Big Ten play.  They were firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble and would need to score at least one and likely two wins in the Big Ten Tournament to feel safe going into Selection Sunday.

4. Postseason Play

With Illinois going 9-9 in Big Ten play, the Illini were considered to be a bubble candidate for the NCAA Tournament and a virtual lock for the NIT.  For Illinois to potentially get into the NCAA Tournament or to help their NIT seeding, they would have to reel off some wins in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.  Illinois was able to grab the #8 seed in Chicago, but with a potential matchup on Friday against Wisconsin and four straight wins required to grab the Big Ten Tournament title, things would be tough.  Here is how things went for Illinois:

Illinois 2014-15 Postseason Play:
  • Loss (2nd Round - Big Ten Tourney), Michigan, 73-55
  • Loss (Round of 32 - NIT), Alabama, 79-58

There was no doubt that Illinois would get one of the tougher matchups in their first game in Chicago when they were scheduled to face the Wolverines, but there was still a lot of hope.  Michigan really was only playing for pride at that point and Illinois desperately needed a win.  Plus, Illinois had beaten Michigan just a month earlier in regular season play.  Entering the game, the Illini were a 63.5% favorite on KenPom.  It was an incredibly important game for Illinois with a loss meaning they would essentially be locked out of the NCAA Tournament.

Initially, Illinois kept the game relatively close, but thanks to some great shooting, Michigan pushed its lead to 14-2 by the 14:30 mark in the 1st Half.  The Illini cut the lead back down for a bit and actually had the game tied at 19-19 with 7:19 remaining in the 1st Half, but thanks to some great play from Spike Albrecht, Aubrey Dawkins, and Zak Irvin, the Wolverines were able to grab a 40-23 lead by halftime.

In the 2nd Half, it was all Michigan.  Though Illinois had some solid possessions, they were never able to make any substantial run and by the 10 minute mark, the game was over.  In fact, Michigan had at least 95% odds to win the game according to KenPom for the final 17 minutes of the game.  Ultimately, Michigan won by a final score of 73-55.

It was a brutal performance for Illinois and was the final nail in the coffin for their NCAA Tournament hopes.  This wasn't a massive upset, but it was very likely the team's worst loss of the season.  It was the largest margin of victory for any team in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament and was Illinois' worst final score deficit outside of their road loss to eventual Final Four team Wisconsin.  It would be one thing if this was a great team, but this loss came against a Michigan team that failed to make the NIT.  It doesn't get much rougher than that to end an NCAA Tournament bid.

Of course, Illinois did still earn a bid to the NIT and were slated to face Alabama.  The Illini were actually the #2 seed, but thanks to renovations on their arena, would be playing on the road.  Thanks to the road trip, Illinois would be an underdog to the Crimson Tide and would have to hope a renewed focus could get things back on track to at least put a positive finish on 2014-15.

Unfortunately, that's not how things went.  Illinois was completely steamrolled out of the gate and were down 23-4 at the halfway mark of the 1st Half.  The Illini did start to creep back into the game thanks to some decent play from Kendrick Nunn and Rayvonte Rice, but the game was never all that close.  The final score was 79-58 and Alabama moved on to the next round.

Overall, Illinois ended regular season play with a crushing loss to Purdue on the road, ended their Big Ten Tournament appearance with a blowout loss to Michigan, and ended their NIT run with a blowout loss to Alabama in the 1st Round.  For a team that started with so much promise, it was a dreadful end to the season.  All in all, the team finished with a 19-14 overall record and a 9-9 record in the Big Ten.

5. Strengths

Though Illinois took somewhat of a step back in 2014-15 from the season before, this was not a team that suffered any massive regression.  In 2013-14, the team went to the NIT and was rated #49 on KenPom.  In 2014-15, Illinois went to the NIT and was rated #69 on KenPom.  This was a weaker team in overall measures, but not that much different than the year before and as once again it was still largely a defensive driven team.

Overall, Illinois had one of the better defenses in the conference and the nation.  They came in at #49 in KenPom's defensive efficiency rating and finished at #5 in the conference during Big Ten play.  This was nowhere near an elite defense and probably wasn't in the top segment of the Big Ten, but it was a quality unit that was good enough to win a hunk of games.

The two defensive leaders were Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice, who helped the team in different aspects.  The Illini certainly had other key contributors, but it was these two that really held things together.  Egwu was the shot blocker for the team and the interior presence who finished the season at #6 in the Big Ten in block rate.  Rice pressured the ball on the outside and finished at #4 in the conference in steal rate.  You will need more than just two guys to have a great defense, but that's a pretty good start.

Perhaps the strongest defensive area for the team was on the boards.  Illinois was not the biggest team in the country, but they did finish at #73 in effective height.  One of the important things that many don't realize about good rebounding teams is that often, some of the best rebounding teams do it through their wings and backcourts.  If you have a few guys there that snag a rebound or two above the average, it adds up a lot by the end of the season.  Egwu was the force down low, but it was a group effort.  Just take a look.

2014-15 Big Ten Defensive Rebounding Leaders:

rebbbbb big 20145

*Minimum 40% of minutes played to be listed.

One other note is that although Illinois did not have a great, or even good, offense, they did take some positives step forward in 2014-15.  The Illini relied almost exclusively on defense in 2013-14, but this season, they had at least enough offense to take some pressure off the defense.  Take a look at the growth below.

Illinois Offensive Stats:

11415 illinois offenzzzeeeeee

Illinois may have failed to make the NCAA Tournament and did not have many great areas, they did have a solid defense to rely on led by Egwu and Rice, solid defensive rebounding, and elite free throw shooting.

6. Weaknesses

There's no debating that Illinois took steps forward offensively in 2014-15.  They went from a bad offensive team in 2013-14 to somewhere around average to above average this season.  The Illini deserve credit for their improvement and steps forward.  However, it also requires to be pointed out that they were still a pretty underwhelming offensive team.  You can put steak sauce on a hamburger and it might seem better, but ultimately, you're still eating a hamburger.  Illinois was better, but still needed a lot more to be a good offensive team.

During the 2014-15 season, Illinois finished the season with the #129 offense on KenPom and finished at 11th in the conference during Big Ten play.  Again, they got better, but this was still an offense that was closer to the Nebraskas and Penn States of the world than it was to the Michigan States and Ohio States.  Having an elite offense isn't a requirement, but it's very hard to be a good team without at least a mediocre offense.  It simply puts too much pressure on a defense to perform.

Illinois' offense, for the most part, was good enough to win games as long as the defense performed well.  However, perhaps the single biggest issue of the season for the Illini was the inability of Rayvonte Rice to stay on the floor.  Offensively, nobody was more efficient on Illinois' roster last season.  His absence for over a month of Big Ten play did a lot of damage to the team's offense.  You can see some of the trends here.

2014-15 Illinois Adjusted Points Per Possession:

illin pppp 1415

2014-15 Illinois 2PT Baskets:

ill 2pts adjusted big1g

There is certainly no perfect measure, but as you can see, 5 game running averages of Illinois' points per possession and 2PT basketbs adjusted for opponent strength both dropped off roughly around the time Rice exited the lineup and trended up later in the year once he returned to the team.  Rice was certainly not the entire offense and Malcolm Hill was more productive over the season, but Rice was still a significant loss.

One of the key areas where Illinois struggled was interior production.  They didn't have a consistent interior post threat and lacked the guards to create great looks.  It's why they ranked #300 in 2PT% over the course of the season and #257 in percentage of the team's points off 2PT looks.  They didn't get good looks inside consistently and it was arguably the biggest reason the team's offense struggled.  Just look at how the team compared in its ability to get inside and get to the free throw line.

2014-15 Big Ten FTRate Stats:

1415 ill ftrateeeeee

*Minimum 60% of minutes played to be listed.

There's little doubt that if Rice could have stayed on the floor, that comparison would have improved, but the fact is that he missed half of the Big Ten regular season games and it was a big hit to the team.  In fact, if Rice had played the adequate number of minutes and maintained his FTRate, he would have been #14 in the Big Ten in that stat and it would have been a big boost to an Illinois offense looking for interior production and that was #1 in the nation in free throw rate.

Just think about the impact Rice could have had in January for Illinois when the team lost to Indiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska all by 10 points or less.  Illinois was favored in two those games outright and all were in that "winnable" category discussed earlier.  If Illinois even grabs 2 of those games, they're sitting in a whole different scenario come March.  Instead, Rice was out of the lineup and they lost all 3 games by relatively tight margins.

The Illini were not a terrible team in 2014-15, but their underwhelming offense exacerbated by the fact that one of their key contributors was out of the lineup really held them back and cost them in several winnable games.

7. Top Player

Coming into the season, Illinois appeared to have a clear leader for its top player in Rayvonte Rice.  He was in the running for All-Big Ten status in 2013-14 and appeared set to take another step forward in 2014-15.  Overall, Rice had an efficient season, but his sidelining for half of Big Ten play left some major questions about his contributions over the season and where they fit in with some of the team's other top contributors.

Let's take a look at the traditional stats.

Illinois 2014-15 Stat Leaders
  • Minutes - Malcolm Hill
  • Field Goal Attempts - Malcolm Hill
  • Points - Malcolm Hill
  • Rebounds - Nnanna Egwu
  • AssistsJaylon Tate
  • Blocks - Nnanna Egwu
  • Steals - Rayvonte Rice

Hill also held up well in the advanced stats.

1415 ill ws

1415 ill perrrrrzzzzzz

Of course, advanced numbers may not necessarily be a perfect reflection compared to how a player performs in big games and whether he can push them over the top.  To help assist in this, KenPom does an analysis of an MVP in each game and awards it to the best player during the game.  Here is how Illinois stacked up.

ill kp mvps 141555

If this was by an efficiency or per game basis, Rice would clearly be the top player for Illinois last season.  However, thanks in large part to his injury, Hill may hold the edge here.  He has the large raw contributions isn't that far off in efficiency and also holds up well in win shares.  Still, Rice's great play when he was on the court deserves attention, so this largely depends on how you are measuring.  Here, Hill probably deserves a slight edge.

8. Sixth Man

The Illini certainly did not have the depth and talent that some hoped before the season, but the team's bench actually contributed quite significantly.  In total, the team finished #173 overall in bench minutes and though it could have used improvement, it still was relied on early and often over the 2014-15 season.

Last season, Illinois' most started lineup was Nnanna Egwu, Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Rayvonte Rice, and Ahmad Starks.  This was certainly not the lineup for the entire season, but these were the most started players, which is the measure for this comparison.  This left the top bench contributors as Leron Black, Austin Colbert, Aaron Cosby, Maverick Morgan, and Jaylon Tate.  Here is how the bench players broke down in traditional stats.

Illinois 2014-15 Bench Leaders
  • Minutes - Jaylon Tate
  • Field Goal Attempts - Aaron Cosby
  • Points - Leron Black
  • Rebounds - Leron Black
  • Assists - Jaylon Tate
  • Steals - Jaylon Tate

Here is how they held up in the advanced stats comparison.

1415 ill bench wsssszzzz

1415 ill per bench zzzzz

Really, it was a close comparison between Black and Tate off the bench for Illinois last season.  Both players were productive and relatively efficient.  Tate probably held a slight edge in the overall contributions, while Black held a slight edge in efficiency.  Still, considering Tate played over 12% more of the team's minutes than Black, he deserves to get the edge in this comparison.

9. Top Storylines

The storyline of Illinois' 2014-15 was one of elusive potential.  The Illini were a solid team this season and got very close to breaking through on multiple occasions.  However, success was like smoke to Illinois in 2014-15.  It was something they could never quite catch or quantify.  At points, they looked like a national contender, but at other points, they looked like a fringe NIT team and a bottom-tier Big Ten team.

Before the season started, expectations were mixed for Illinois, but generally optimistic.  The team had lost some contributions, but brought back the most significant pieces and had a young core with players like Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn.  The Illini were far from a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, but very few would have been surprised if they put together a resume to qualify.

Unfortunately, due to the team's inability to close the deal in winnable games and to keep key contributors on the court, the Illini could never live up to their potential and get on the right track.  Ultimately, the team ended up in the NIT and might have had one of the roughest ends to its season in the conference.  For a team that was so close, but always a step behind, it was a frustrating season for fans.

The season was far from a complete failure and the team put forth quality performances on many occasions, but all said, it was a relative dud for fans hoping for a return to the Big Dance.  In fact, for the first time since 1992, Illinois failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons.

grozzzcccee

10. Final Verdict

Unlike some of the other teams in the Big Ten, the 2014-15 season for Illinois is relatively easy to grade on paper.  The team had its adversity to overcome and saw several key contributors miss significant time due to injuries and suspension, but it was an underwhelming season for fans and the program.

There's little doubt that if Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice stay in the rotation, things could have looked differently for the Illini.  However, the team only has itself to blame for its horrendous finish to the season that included back-to-back blowout losses against Michigan and Alabama.  Even with this adversity, there was a path to success for the Illini, but instead of walking through it, the team collapsed.

The Illini were not a great team in 2014-15 with or without Cosby and Rice, but they were more than capable of playing better and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.  Still, despite this lost potential, Illinois did qualify for the NIT, recorded some significant wins, and went .500 in Big Ten play.  This wasn't a bad team either.  Illinois deserves a grade above average, but not by much for its 2014-15 performance.

Season Grade: C+