CHAMPAIGN — Comparisons between this Illinois basketball team and the 2005 team that rocked and rolled to the NCAA Tournament championship game have been flying around since the summer when both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn announced their returns to the program.
The reasoning as been simple: Star power, experience, talented pieces around and some bit of depth. But in 11 games this season, another trend has emerged: Offensive efficiency.
These Illini, ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press polls, No. 4 in the NCAA's NET rankings — the metric used to determine tournament seeding — and No. 7 in KenPom, have ripped and roared on offense. According to KenPom, the Illini (8-3, 4-1) enter an 8 p.m. game on Thursday against Northwestern (BTN) with the No. 6 adjusted offensive efficiency in the country (116.1 points), according to KenPom.
Adjusted offensive efficiency is an estimate of the offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) a team would have against the average D-I defense. The only Illinois team to have a higher ranking since the metric started being tracked in 1997? That'd be when the 2005 team ranked No. 3 in the country.
Head coach Brad Underwood's Oklahoma State team ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2017 (126.0) and last season's Illinois team was ranked No. 38 (110.9). That Oklahoma State team didn't have an interior presence like Kofi Cockburn, but it was littered with strong shooters around the perimeter.
The common thread?
“We can pass," Underwood said. "Truthfully, at the end of the day having IQ guys who can pass. If you look at all the top teams; you have to have shot makers, yes, but if you can’t pass you can’t play offense. It gets really hard. Everything becomes off the bounce and baskets aren't assisted and so on and so forth. ...
"We didn’t have a low-post scoring threat, but we could really, really shoot it and we could really pass it. That’s the one similarity and it’s helped our shooting this year, is our ability to pass. We’re able to do that with IQ and feel and deliver the ball at the right time and get guys easy baskets. That’s the one common thread."
The Illini are 20th in the NCAA and second in the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging 87.3 points.
Illinois ranks seventh nationally in effective field goal percentage (59 percent) and currently rank seventh in the NCAA in 3-point field goal percentage (41.8 percent). Illinois is also one of the nation's best teams from 2-point range, shooting 57.3 percent to rank 20th. The Illini are shooting 52.7 percent overall, ranking eighth in the NCAA in field goal percentage, and have shot at least 50 percent in seven of the first 11 games.
They rank 31st in the country with 17.5 assists per game but Underwood has long praised the "hockey assist," or the pass before the pass that leads to a made shot.
“We just go out there and play," said Ayo Dosunmu, who is averaging 23 points per game. "Just go out there and play. Coach really doesn’t give us limitations or restrictions. He just allows us to go out there and play, do what you do best and just not turn the ball over. We do a great job at that.
“Our practices and when we run plays, they’re really on us a lot of running with speed and running with pace so when we get in the game it becomes much easier."
Underwood has three key words on offense: Race, space and pace. Order isn't important. Race is the speed of which the Illini play and Underwood likes to play fast and in transition. Pace is how the team pops in the half court; how they cut from spot to spot. Everything else? That's spacing.
“Spacing is knowing where guys are at and creating the right distance away and making coverages hard and making tags hard on Kofi (Cockburn) and making those reads," Underwood said. "Our guys are more comfortable doing that. I think we’ve prepared for every situation. (Assistant coach Stephen Gentry) does a great job with our guards in terms of practicing all those situations everyday."
All of that is leading to one of the most efficient offensive seasons in Illinois basketball history since the stat was measured in 1997 and one of the top offenses in the country. Illinois trails only: Iowa, Gonzaga, Baylor, Villanova and LSU in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Though Underwood is happy with the growth of his defense, which ranks 25th in adjusted defensive efficiency, the offense has been humming, even in some optically difficult games.
In part, that's thanks to: Race, space and pace.
“It helps us a lot because he really strives on if it’s your shot or it’s your time to break the defender down, do it," Dosunmu said. "If not, swing the ball and let someone else make the play. Get in there, make the right read, jump stop, playing fundamental basketball.
“I think we have a lot of high-level guys around us and our chemistry is evolving day by day. I think it’s helping us make better decisions and it’s causing our offensive efficiency to rise."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25