Illinois men’s basketball sees improved shooting, declining offensive production

Illinois+guard+Alfonso+Plummer+rises+up+to+shoot+a+basket+during+the+game+against+Arizona+on+Dec.+11+at+State+Farm+Center.+Plummer+has+become+one+of+the+best+shooters+in+the+country++since+transferring+to+Illinois.%0A

Mark Capapas

Illinois guard Alfonso Plummer rises up to shoot a basket during the game against Arizona on Dec. 11 at State Farm Center. Plummer has become one of the best shooters in the country since transferring to Illinois.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

This current iteration of the Illinois men’s basketball team might be the greatest collection of shooters the school has ever seen. Emphasis on “might.”

Some stats are in their favor, but they’ve got stiff competition with the 2004-2005 team. That year the Illini shot 39.9% from three, good for 15th in the nation, on nearly 22 attempts per game in the regular season. This year’s squad has made 38% of their threes, while taking 25 per game — a slightly lower percentage. But that’s coming on more attempts. When you compare the 2021-2022 team to last year’s team, however, the difference is more obvious.

In the 2020-2021 season, the Illini attempted just 17.5 threes a game, their lowest average in over a decade. They connected on 37.6% of those attempts. Despite losing two of their reliable 3-point weapons, current Chicago Bull Ayo Dosunmu and Louisiana State’s Adam Miller, the Illini have managed to improve drastically from beyond the arc.

Much of this improvement can be attributed to transfer graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer. Plummer played two years of community college basketball at Arizona Western before making his NCAA debut with Utah in 2019. 

Two years later, in his first season with the Illini, Plummer has put himself in the conversation for the best shooter in the country. Plummer is one of four players who rank inside the top-25 for 3-pointers made per game while playing in a Power Six conference (Power Five and the Big East).Among the four, Plummer is third in 3-point percentage. 

Other players have contributed to the turnaround as well. Graduate student guard/forward Jacob Grandison has shot a ridiculously high 46.8% from deep on nearly five attempts per game. Fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier has attempted a career-high 6.8 threes a game, two more than last year, while increasing his 3-point shooting percentage by 0.5 percentage points. 

At 46.8%, Grandison sits firmly in second place for 3-point percentage in the Big Ten behind only Purdue forward Mason Gillis, who attempts just two threes a game. 

Grandison’s improvement is probably the most surprising. He attempted just one deep ball per game last season, and in his best shooting year at Holy Cross, where he played prior to joining Illinois, he shot 36.5% from deep.

Frazier, on the other hand, has taken over the closer role, which Dosunmu occupied before leaving for the NBA. Frazier’s ability to create space late in games is rivaled only by his stellar on-ball defense. The fact that most of his threes come on step-backs and dribble pull-up jumpers makes his 36.7% from deep even more impressive.

Shooting struggles for sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins and fifth-year senior guard Da’Monte Williams haven’t hurt the team’s percentages much, due to the fact that both attempt just two a game. Solid shooting from freshman guards R.J. Melendez and Luke Goode, in very limited minutes, has helped some. 

Contrary to what one might think when seeing such improvement from behind the arc, the Illini offense has not improved since last year. In fact, it has gotten worse. 

This season, Illinois is scoring just 79.3 points per game, compared to 81.4 last season. The Illini’s overall field goal percentage has fallen from 50% last season to 46%. Despite taking two more shots per game this year, the Illini are scoring fewer points and getting to the free-throw line less often.

The cause of the lack of offensive power could be seen clear as day when Illinois played Maryland on Friday. When junior center Kofi Cockburn isn’t on the court, the offense falls apart. Last year head coach Brad Underwood had Dosunmu and sophomore guard Andre Curbelo to rely on when the big man wasn’t playing well. This year, he’s had neither.

Curbelo has brought exactly what the Illini had been missing since he’s returned: an offensive engine when Cockburn is refueling on the bench. 

Cockburn’s concussion, sustained the Sunday before the team played Purdue and worsened by an elbow from Purdue’s Zach Edey, may keep him out for several games. Just as the Illini saw a chance to put things together, another piece was taken away.

This offense can’t be judged without Cockburn on the court, but the Illini may be able to fix something as Curbelo works his way back into the fold.

If the Illini catch a break before the NCAA tournament starts, they may be unstoppable. But with the ways things have gone so far, it’s hard to be optimistic. They’ve dealt with a suspension, a load of COVID-19 infections, a flu outbreak, various minor injuries and two concussions.

What’s next? Health? We can only hope.

 

@JonesChristianT

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