It’s basically a consensus at this point. The 2020-21 Illinois men’s basketball team is perceived as the best in Champaign since the 2004-05 squad played for a national championship.
High praise indeed.
Not without merit, though.
The return of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn changed the entire dynamic of the upcoming season for the Illini. Without them — or with one, but not the other — and Illinois still would have had a competitive team. Just not one drawing comparisons to the second (?) best in program history.
There are no statistics to compare the 2004-05 team to the current roster. Instead, let’s take a look at how Bruce Weber’s first team turned into the No. 1 team in the nation and some parallels that might be necessary for Brad Underwood’s fourth team to make a similar jump.
The most significant improvement Illinois made from 2003-04 to 2004-05 was on the defensive front. The Illini already had a top-10 offense behind the triumvirate of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head, but their defensive metrics moved them from top 40 to top five in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency.
It’s a similar improvement Underwood has said is necessary for this year’s team — something tackled in last week’s “College Basketball Extra.” A top 15 defense isn’t necessary to reach the Final Four, but it certainly helps throughout the journey.
The 2004-05 team saw defensive improvements in multiple areas, namely forcing a few more turnovers, limiting offensive rebounding a little more and sending its opponents to the free throw line less frequently. That helped balance out the Illini’s shakier three-point defense.
Illinois’ defense in 2019-20 was slightly more efficient/effective than in 2003-04. The door is open, of course, for improvement. While the Illini reversed course on trying for turnovers at all costs last season, ranking 300-plus in turnover percentage can be addressed. A more middle ground is out there. Driving down two-point, three-point (and therefore effective) field goal percentages is also an avenue for more efficient defense.
Offensively, of course, is where the 2003-04 Illini had the clear edge on the 2019-20 crew. The former took care of the ball (especially limiting sloppy, unforced errors) and was seriously efficient around the basket. The three-point splurge came during the title run year.
And that’s where the 2020-21 Illini have to be better. Last season saw Illinois rank among the bottom 50 teams in the country in three-point shooting and were middle of the pack inside the arc. Bringing up some of the other metrics to match a top 15 offensive rebounding effort could go a long way in living up to some of the “best team since the national runner-ups” expectations.
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).