Illinois Basketball: 5 crucial improvements for the Illini this season

Nov 25, 2022; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Sencire Harris (1) defends as Lindenwood Lions guard Kevin Coldwell Jr. (11) brings the ball up court during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 25, 2022; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Sencire Harris (1) defends as Lindenwood Lions guard Kevin Coldwell Jr. (11) brings the ball up court during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

Illinois basketball has started the 2022-23 season off well with our only loss coming to No. 5 Virginia in a close game.

This great start has a lot to do with the improvements the Illini have made in some key areas on the floor. Despite losing most of the roster from the NCAA tournament team last season, Illinois might have a better team this time around.

Here are five important areas of improvement for the Illinois basketball team.

Points per game

The Illini lost six of their top seven scorers for the 2021-22 campaign. So, what does Brad Underwood do? He goes out and builds a team that can score at a higher clip.

This is a different style of Illinois basketball team. We were more of a paint team last season, but this year, we are more of a perimeter shooting program.

Illinois averaged 74.4 points per game last season. That is a good number, but it doesn’t compare to the start of the 2022-23 campaign. Illinois is averaging 84.7 points per game in the first six contests this season.

I believe the main difference between the two teams is depth. Illinois can go nine deep right now and not lose out on the offensive end of the court. The team last year couldn’t do that. They were more top-heavy.

Illinois currently has eight players averaging 5.8 points per game or more. In 2021-22, the Illini only had six players accomplishing this feat. This boost in the scoring production has helped the program start 5-1.

Three-point percentage

As mentioned above, the Illini are more of a perimeter-scoring team this season. We have boosted our scoring by over 10 points per game early in the season, and some of that production is coming from behind the three-point arc.

Last season, Illinois averaged hitting their three-pointers at a clip of 35.9%. That is a solid number and one that cracked the top 100 nationally, but the Illini are topping that number this season. They are now averaging 37.7% from three-point range for the 2022-23 campaign.

A reason for the uptick in three-point shooting this season is probably the departure of some shooters from the team last year. Illinois had five players take at least 60 three-pointers in 2021-22, Trent Frazier (32.8%) and Da’Monte Williams (32.5%) both departed the program.

Those two didn’t shoot the ball well last season. Neither did Coleman Hawkins, who was shooting 29.2% from three-point range and took over 60 three-pointers in 2021-22. He has boosted that number up to 36.8% to start the current campaign.

On top of the lineup adjustment from last season, Illinois has seven players who are legit three-point threats this season. Five out of the seven players are shooting at least 36% from three-point range as well.

Rebounds per game

Wait a second, I thought by losing a seven-foot monster in Kofi Cockburn, Illinois was supposed to take a step back when it came to rebounding the basketball.

That hasn’t happened at all. In fact, the Illini are a better rebounding team right now than they were last season.

Through six games, the Illini are averaging 39.2 rebounds per game. That is a slight uptick from the 38.5 rebounds they were averaging last season with Kofi on the roster.

It isn’t a massive rebounding difference, but when you lose a player like Kofi and still can rebound the basketball well, then it is something to note. But why is Illinois still able to pull down the boards?

Much like the scoring average going up, Illinois’ rebounds have increased because of a great team effort. We aren’t relying on one player to pull down the rebounds. The Illini has great rebounding guards and wings.

Illinois had four players who averaged at least 3.5 rebounds per game last season. They now have six players who average at least 3.5 rebounds per game this season.

Dain Dainja, who only averages 18.3 minutes per game, is Illinois’ leading rebounder at 7.0 rebounds per contest. As a team, though, this program can crash the glass. The fact we can lose a big-time rebounder like Kofi and still improve in this department says a lot about our coaching staff and players.

Opponent points per game

Underwood loves defense. Chester Frazier loves defense. Therefore, the Illinois basketball team loves defense. That is how this works.

Illinois was a really good defensive team in 2021-22 with Trent Frazier leading the way. The Illini only gave up 67.2 points per game. This was an impressive number at the time.

Shockingly, the Illini have actually improved that number greatly through six games this season. Illinois has only allowed 61.5 points per game during the 2022-23 campaign. That is insane.

I think the fact that Illinois was able to replace Kofi with Dainja in the paint helps. He is a more athletic big man who can fill the void left by Kofi. He also stops anything that comes in the paint, as his 1.5 blocks per game lead the team and surpasses Kofi’s 1.0 blocks per game from last season.

Illinois has some great perimeter-guarding guards as well. The entire freshman class guards well. I love what Hawkins has done on the inside. He is averaging 1.2 blocks per game right now. RJ Melendez and Terrence Shannon Jr.’s length gives opposing teams nightmares as well.

The Illini had a good defensive team last season. This season, we have a great one. Illinois is shutting down their opponents.

Opponent assist/turnover ratio

An element of not allowing opposing teams to score the basketball is being able to force them to turn it over and stop their offensive movement.

This has been a specialty for the Illini this season. Last year, Illinois was giving up a solid .960 assist-to-turnover ratio. That means for every .960 assists, the opponent turns the ball over. So, the closer you get to zero, the better you are at defense.

Illinois hasn’t just lowered the assist-to-turnover ratio this year, we nearly cut it in half. Illini opponents are averaging a .557 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2022-23. So, essentially, for every assist that the other team is dishing out, Illinois is forcing two turnovers.

Underwood and his coaching staff have taught this Illinois basketball team well. They are playing some incredible defense, and I think it will take this program a long way come March.

Next. 5 observations from the Illini win over Lindenwood. dark