Tuesday, September 28, 2010

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Monday, December 14, 2009

New Football Hires

I have never been a member of the Fire Ron Guenther bandwagon because Illinois athletics has flourished as a whole under his tenure. The basketball team has capitalized on the groundwork laid by Lou Henson; Illinois has risen as a power in sports like wrestling, gymnastics and tennis; and Guenther upgraded the school's facilities and renovated Memorial Stadium. Nonetheless, he is closing in on retirement and still seeking his great white whale - turning around the Illini football team. Thus, Guenther is being criticized by a lot of Illini fans for not firing Ron Zook this year

That said, the quotations from Guenther in Loren Tate's Sunday football article were quite reassuring to me. A sampling:

"He [Ron Zook] knows and understands the culture of Illinois – the administration, philosophy, compliance and academics – and he could be effective if surrounded by stronger people... Ron Zook needs to be the CEO who solves problems and serves as the heartbeat of the program, and let his coaches coach. He is an energetic worker and an effective recruiter."

I have joked in the past that Ron Zook should be kept on the Illinois staff, but as a recruiting coordinator. Interestingly, if Ron Guenther's above comments are taken at face value, this may not be so far from the truth next year. Guenther's approach is a novel and clever one. He is well aware of Zook's weaknesses but is also careful to note that Zook has a lot of strengths, most notably his work ethic and passion for Illinois football. The head coach does not have to do everything. If Zook is truly willing to admit his weaknesses and delegate more authority to his coordinators, as Guenther suggests, then there is great potential to turn this coaching situation around.

Now the idea of putting more responsibility in the hands of Ron Zook's assistants only works with good coordinators, and he hasn't always had good coordinators, particularly on the defensive end. Fortunately, Ron Guenther spared no expense and brought in two of the best available coordinators out there in Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. Petrino's Arkansas offense was #5 in the country at 6.8 yards per play this year and he has learned from one of the best offensive minds in college football in his brother Bobby. Similarly, Koenning's record the last few years as a defensive coordinator has been spectacular. His Clemson defenses never gave up more than 4.7 yards per play, which made them a top 10-15 defense every single year, and in his first season at Kansas State in 2009, the defense improved from allowing 6.2 yards per play to 5.4.

Ron Zook's performance as a whole has been poor enough to warrant his firing, yet firing a coach does not solve all of a program's problems. Fans across the country clamoring to get rid of their school's head coach tend to offer no suggestions as to who their team should hire instead, besides fantasy choices like Urban Meyer. With Brian Kelly off the market and Chris Pedersen unlikely to leave Boise State, I don't see there being any slam dunk head coach choices out there. Zook is not incapable of success at Illinois as witnessed by his 9-4 season in 2007. Both Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have had great success at other programs, so there will be no more excuses for Zook if these staff shake-ups don't result in winning football in 2010.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Great Coordinator Purge of 2009

As expected, Ron Zook finally cleaned house Friday. You could definitely make the argument that it's unfair for the assistant coaches to take the fall for Zook but this is more or less the way things go in college coaching. First the coordinators fall, and then the head coach. As I will describe below, I agree that most of the coordinators who were fired were not getting results. But I fear that merely removing the symptoms will fail to take care of the underlying disease.

The casualties:

Co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory, demoted

Disch and Mallory presided over a truly noxious defense this year so I was sure they would be let go. The fact that they were demoted and not fired is fair given that as I understand things, they lacked the autonomy of most defensive coordinators. Rather, their role was to call plays while hewing to Zook's overall schematic design. I always had the feeling that Disch and Mallory were there because Zook couldn't find anyone else (witness his contract offer to Penn State's Larry Johnson last year when Disch and Mallory ostensibly still had jobs). What I would like to see is for Zook to hire a coordinator who will implement his own scheme and jettison Zook's because having the corners play ten yards off their men clearly isn't working.

Special teams coordinator Mike Woodford

Special teams has been an area of weakness for Illinois for years now. Punting has been an adventure, and I fail to conceive how with so much supposed talent (Arrelious Benn especially) the Illini averaged just 4.2 and 19.3 yards on punt and kickoff returns this year. In terms of results, there's not much of an argument for keeping Woodford.

Receivers coach Jim Pry

Evaluating strictly by results, Pry's job performance has been poor. If his role was to develop the wide receivers, then the hugely disappointing performance of the Illini receiving corps this year is ample reason for him to be let go. I'm not going to blame him for Arrelious Benn's injuries, but the lack of development for hyped talent like Jarred Fayson and Jeff Cumberland is not a testament to Pry's coaching.

Quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard

Again, if Beathard's role was to develop the quarterbacks, then the utter lack of development by either Juice or Eddie McGee is an indictment against him. Yet again, the results suggest that Beathard's job performance was not strong enough to warrant him keeping his job.

Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz

This was the big hire of the year after stalwart offensive coordinator Mike Locksley left for New Mexico, and needless to say, the results were rocky. I analyzed Schultz' performance in a post in October and while at the time I likely would have supported his firing, the performance of Illinois' offense in the final five games of the year should have been enough to give Schultz a second chance, at least in a world where his boss wasn't on the hot seat.

Despite Zook claiming that the offense wouldn't change much in the transition from Locksley to Schultz, my personal observation (and something I want to study more in the future) is that Schultz didn't feel comfortable in the Illinois offense until midway through the season. His play-calling philosophy is more conservative and run-based than Locksley's, which worked fine for the running backs, but not for Juice, as the short passing game has never been his forte. Nonetheless, Schultz found his groove with the Illini offense as the year went on, as he discovered the joys of the deep pass. His performance was sub-par on the whole, given the horrific start to the year and the failure to incorporate Arrelious Benn, but as much as I'd like to dream that Illinois will hire some wunderkind offensive coordinator to replace him, they probably won't, making his removal questionable.

So although I agree that most of the coordinators who were fired or demoted had job performances that warranted such actions, my qualm is that it's easy to fire someone but not so easy to find his replacement. If there were really this many sub-par coaches on the Illini staff (and I am inclined to believe there were), then doesn't that tell you something about the person hiring them? And why should we trust that person to make the right hires the second (or third, or fourth) time around? I'll keep my fingers crossed that the Rons knock a few out of the park with their coming hires, but history says they probably won't and that Zook will be fired after a lackluster 2010 season. Let's just hope it doesn't get too ugly.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Illinois 79, Vanderbilt 68

I was nervous coming into Tuesday night's game after yet another lackluster performance against an average Division I team (the close victory over Boise State on Saturday night) but the Illini got off to a 9-0 run and played well throughout, especially on offense. Although Vanderbilt kept the game from being a blowout, there was never really a moment where the Commodores seemed like they were going to come back and that is a tribute to the consistency of effort from Illinois.

Plus-minus chart:

Despite a great scoring line from Demetri McCamey (23 points on 8-10 shooting), Illinois was actually outscored when he was on the court while going +15 in Jeff Jordan's minutes. In general, Illinois will be better on offense with McCamey in the game and better on defense with Jordan, but last night with McCamey committing 6 turnovers and Jordan scoring 7 points on 3-4 shooting, the team didn't suffer on offense when Jordan came in and was better defensively as expected. McCamey still ranks as the most valuable player on the team in his season-long plus-minus count, but Jordan will be quite important himself if he can continue to nail open jump shots.

Nine games into the season, it's clear that Illinois has taken on a new identity as a more up-tempo, potent scoring team whose defensive effort comes and goes. Last night, they scored 79 points in 67 possessions, cracking the 1.1 points/possession barrier for the third game in a row and the sixth time in nine games after doing it just 12 times in 34 outings last season. On the other hand, it was also the fourth straight game they've given up over 1.0 points/possession after permitting teams to cross that barrier just 11 times all of last season.

What's changed? The most noticeable difference is an increase in tempo by nearly seven possessions a game over last season. Pushing the pace and adding two more capable scorers to the starting lineup in DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul has increased Illinois' effective field goal percentage (taking into account three-pointers) from 51.1 to 54.9. The other significant difference is an increase in offensive rebound percentage from 29.9 to 36.1. The credit here partly has to go to Mike Davis (up to 2.7 offensive boards a game from 1.8 last year), especially given that his totals have increased despite the team missing fewer shots, but the team effort on the offensive boards as a whole has been good. For all the talk about the team lacking physicality, they have been good at rebounding on both ends of the floor, according to Ken Pomeroy's stats. The drop on defense, though, has come partly from an increase in two-point percentage by opponents, perhaps an indication of too much dribble penetration, and regression to the mean in opponents' free-throw percentage (up to 70.9% after a flukishly low 63.1% mark last season). I still think that Bruce Weber will get the defense turned around, but I hope he won't have to sacrifice too much of the offense to get there.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fresno State 53, Illinois 52

As much as I like to harp on how not all wins are created equal, and how the underlying statistics are sometimes more revealing than the score, it still hurts as a fan to see your team lose on a two-point conversion play where the other team's quarterback throws the ball away to avoid getting sacked, your team's cornerback safely bats the ball down, and then the other team's offensive lineman manages to catch the ball and fall into the end zone. The fact that it was ESPN's play of the week on Sports Center over Kobe Bryant's ridiculous banked-in buzzer-beating three to beat the Heat didn't really make me feel better.

But seriously, as much of a fluke as the play was, and even though Illinois was statistically the better team on Saturday, I felt as disappointed as if they had been blown out. Even if they got unlucky in the end, the miserable play of the defense gave Fresno State the opportunity to win the game and the Bulldogs seized it.

The stats:

The game was an offensive delight, as both teams were explosive and consistent. The 1.132 figure (points/play + success rate) was Illinois' best against FCS competition all season, but unfortunately the 1.041 figure by Fresno State was the Illini defense's second-worst performance of the year. Both teams emphasized the run game to great success, which helped open up the passing game for big plays. Still, the point totals were extreme given the yards gained by both teams, reflecting the role that turnovers and special teams played in setting up short fields. Fresno State, in fact, had a microscopic yards/point ratio of 8.5 thanks in part to an interception return for a touchdown.

I will post some final thoughts (and statistics!) on the season in the coming days, but I must first brag that I totally called the resurgence of the Illinois offense over the second half of the season in my post on yards per point. At the time I wrote the post Illinois was 119th out of 120 teams in the FCS with a horrific ratio of 21.7 yards per point on offense. I pointed out that although Ron Zook teams were historically below average in this statistic, they had never been that bad before and could likely look forward to some regression to the mean. Well, just as I forecasted, the Illinois offense was far more efficient at converting yards into points as the year went on and wound up with a 16.7 yards/point ratio, still below average, but actually a little better than their average during Ron Zook's tenure. Over the last five games, Illinois averaged 13.0 yards/point and also a much better 6.4 yards per play, resulting in a healthy 35.4 points per game over this stretch. This was finally, to some extent, the Illini offense everyone feared coming into the season. Unfortunately, the defense was still so bad that Illinois managed to go 2-3 in their last five despite scoring 35 a game. And Juice Williams will leave Illinois having led the offense to 52 points in his final game but still having lost. I think that says it all.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Illinois 76, Clemson 74

What a game!  It's not often you see a game that exciting in the regular season.  But there's nothing quite like coming back from a 23 point second-half deficit to win by two on the road.  Of course, I knew Illinois would come back since I picked them to win by almost the exact actual final score (sarcasm).  The game was also remarkable since it helped the Big 10 to capture the ACC/Big 10 Challenge for the first time ever, thus winning me my bet with my girlfriend.  And even more remarkable was the plus-minus chart:

Demetri McCamey was +28 in a game where Illinois won by just two points, meaning that his overall plus/minus was an astounding +54!!  Let me repeat that: Illinois was fifty-four points worse when Demetri was on the bench.  I'd been wondering if my game plus/minus charts had any value, but this is a great example of how they can be quite revealing.  I don't have a ton of college plus/minus data to work with but I have never seen a player put up a number anywhere near +54, which attests to how unique a game this was.

Clemson's big run to go up by 20+ points took place with McCamey on the bench with three fouls and Jordan running the point.  Similarly, Illinois' big run took place with McCamey back in the game.  I don't mean to suggest that McCamey can be solely credited with Illinois' better play when he was on the court, nor should Jordan be solely blamed for Clemson's first-half run.  But against the Clemson press, McCamey was particularly valuable because he is the team's most credible ballhandler.  Jeff simply wasn't able to run the offense successfully against the press while Demetri kept the tempo slowed down, which had a double effect of improving the Illinois offense and the defense since they just had to play man-to-man rather than try to contain a series of Clemson fastbreaks.  Bruce Weber was quoted after the game as saying "He [McCamey] had two points, but he might have had the best game in his career."  A few years ago, I would have scoffed at such a statement, but basketball really sometimes can't be captured by the traditional stats, and the plus/minus chart from last night's game shows that (in corroboration with what I witnessed with my own eyes).

Overall, Illinois fans can now be justified in feeling optimistic about the team again.  I suspect they will still be up and down as Richardson and Paul learn how to play winning college basketball, but both of the freshmen played 30+ solid minutes last night and were productive on the offensive end.  You will see Illinois' rotation expand again as the team plays some easier opponents, but it looks to me like come postseason time, the roster will boil down to an 8-man rotation: the five starters, Dominique Keller, Jeff Jordan, and quite possibly, Bill Cole, whose hustle is evident every time he is out on the court.  I suspect Tyler Griffey, Alex Legion and Richard Semrau will be phased out as the season progresses, but I would be happy if any or all of them proved me wrong.  Next up:  Boise State!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thoughts on Illinois basketball thus far

I'm a little behind on posting plus/minus charts for the weekend's basketball games what with it being Thanksgiving weekend and all.  And of course, it doesn't help my spirits that Illinois lost both games.  First off, the charts:

Against Utah, the team was generally much more successful with the bench players on the court rather than the starters.  This isn't too surprising given that the Illini led by 16 at the half and blew their lead mostly in the last ten minutes of the game.  I was skeptical of Bruce Weber's decision to start Alex Legion against Bradley but he did lead the team against Utah with a +12 rating. 

Against Bradley, the bench once again outperformed the starters.  Although Richard Semrau was on the floor just 7 minutes, he managed to post a +11 rating, while the three returning stars from last year (McCamey, Davis, Tisdale) were -7, -10 and -12 respectively.  Still, I'm reluctant to draw very many conclusions from game by game plus/minus charts.  I'm primarily posting them for interest at this point - until there have been enough games played that season-long numbers begin to mean something.

At any rate, it's probably still too early to read too much into the Pomeroy Ratings, but right now, the Illini rank a bit ahead of last year's team on the offensive end (up from 98th to 72nd) but the defense is fulfilling Bruce Weber's worst fears, and has regressed much more than I would have expected (down to 122nd from 4th), even given the graduation of defensive star Chester Frazier.  That said, given Weber's track record, I would expect the defense to improve sharply as the season progresses - they have certainly shown flashes, like holding Utah to 16 points in the first half, but have also had really bad stretches of defense, like letting Utah score 44 in the second half. 

What concerns me more is that the offense has taken only a small step forward from last year.  Illinois no longer ranks dead last in the country in FTA/FGA but is still just 287th, while everything else has remained about the same.  After hot starts, Paul and Richardson have faded a bit the last couple games, and this is probably to be expected given their youth.  The success of this season will hinge upon Paul and Richardson's ability to improve the offense by drawing free throws while improving on team defense (Paul, in particular, has been a sieve on defense according to the plus/minus numbers so far).

Overall, it was disappointing and unexpected that Illinois went to Las Vegas and came back with two losses, but it's certainly not the end of the world yet, because the losses were at least close.  I read something in the local paper about how if Illinois loses to Clemson, it will be their first three-game losing streak since the miserable 16-19 season of 2008.  Yet although true, the implication is misleading.  It is the two losses to underdogs in Utah and Bradley that are significant, not a potential third loss to Clemson in a situation where Clemson would have been favored even if the Illini were 6-0.  So if Illinois loses another close game tonight, please ignore the inevitable ominous articles revolving around their three-game losing streak.  Sometimes luck is just against you.  As for me, I need the Big 10 to beat the ACC tonight so I can win a bet with my ACC-school attending girlfriend.  So in other words, I'm picking the Illini! 

Pick: Illinois 75, Clemson 73