PREVIEW: Illinois vs Chattanooga

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews yet another difficult matchup for the Illini, who host Chattanooga in Springfield on Saturday night.

Illinois (1-2) vs.

Chattanooga (2-0)

Date & Time: Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m. CT

Location: Prairie Capital Convention Center

TV: Big Ten Network

Quick Hits

  • Chattanooga won 22 games last season, but they lost to Furman in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament.
  • The Mocs return four starters from last season's team, and senior guard Casey Jones is the conference's preseason Player of the Year.
  • Chattanooga won at Georgia 92-90 in OT in their season opener.
  • The Mocs are 2-20 all-time against current members of the Big Ten.
  • Chattanooga is 1-0 all-time against Illinois, as they defeated the Illini in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1997.
  • Illinois is coming off a 60-59 loss at Providence, which was just the second loss in November during John Groce's tenure.
  • The Illini have two losses in November for the first time since 2009-10, and they have never lost three games in November during one season.

Projected Starters

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis had two points, two assists and two steals in 20 minutes against Providence. While his offensive production has been minimal, Lewis will be important against Chattanooga's fullcourt press.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): FOX Sports 1 announcer Tim Brando said Coleman-Lands is so good he needs two last names. He wasn't wrong, as the Illini freshman scored a team-high 17 points off the bench. Coleman-Lands needs to be on the floor as much as possible.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin played a big role in containing All-American point guard Kris Dunn, and he continues to be Illinois' best perimeter defender. But Austin took some ill-advised shots on Wednesday night, including a drive into the teeth of the Providence defense on the second to last possession.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill responded in a big way from his previous struggles by posting 15 points and 11 rebounds against Providence. But the junior forward is still thinking about his late-game miss that bounced off the rim. Chattanooga's press will be a tough task for Hill when he is running the point.

Mike Thorne (GR): After two straight games of 20-plus points, Thorne was scoreless in 13 minutes of action against the Friars. The big man looked uncomfortable against the double team, and he fouled out at the other end. Illinois needs him to get back on track.

Bench

Leron Black (SO): Black's outing on Wednesday night was as frustrating as they come. He managed to record four fouls in just four minutes, and he did not register a point or a rebound. Black's presence in the starting lineup seemed to be crucial, but he didn't deliver.

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke was a huge bright spot for the Illini during his coming-out party against Providence. The redshirt freshman finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and two assists off the bench. Finke was a tip-slam away from being a hero on Wednesday, and the Illini hope he can continue to gain confidence.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan hit a three-pointer and he had three assists in 15 minutes against the Friars. The sharpshooting freshman is shooting 54.5 percent from deep so far this season. The key for Jordan is to continue improving on the defensive end, while still providing an offensive spark.

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan has shown that he can score in the low post early on this season. He had six points and three rebounds on Wednesday night. The junior big man is in his comfort zone with a guy on his back, but he needs to be better at finishing when there's traffic around the hoop.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams didn't see the floor against Providence, which was probably a first for him during his basketball career. Groce said that he rolled with the guys that he felt gave his team the best chance to win. Williams has great length and versatility, but he needs to improve defensively to earn valuable minutes.

Chattanooga Starters

Greg Pryor (JR): Pryor is averaging 12.5 points, 4.5 steals and three assists per game this season, while shooting 66.7 percent from beyond the arc. 

Eric Robertson (SR): Robertson has scored five points in each of Chattanooga's first two contests.

Casey Jones (SR): Jones is a big-time player in the backcourt, while averaging 15.5 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

Tre' McLean (R-JR): McLean is not known for his outside stroke, but he brings athleticism and rebounding.

Justin Tuoyo (R-JR): Tuoyo was the Defensive Player of the Year in the Southern Conference last season with 3.3 blocks per game, and he is averaging 10 points and two blocks so far this season.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Be ready to defend the perimeter. Chattanooga isn't North Florida (48 percent from deep this season), but the Mocs know how to let it fly. Pryor is top-40 in the country in three-point percentage through the first week of the season, while Peyton Woods and Dee Oldham come off the bench shooting at least 40 percent from deep. Meanwhile, Jones is great off the dribble and he scored 23 at Georgia in the opener. Junior guard Johnathon Burroughs-Cook is tied with Jones at 15.5 points per game, and he shoots higher than 36 percent from three. The Mocs are experienced and they have depth, which make them a challenge to guard for 40 minutes. The Illini were able to limit one of the best players in the country on Wednesday, but Chattanooga with force them to spread out their focus and rely on each individual to do their job.

2. Illini must get the ball in the hands of their playmakers. Groce will need multiple ball-handlers to beat the press, which will likely give Lewis a high volume of minutes. Hill has shown he can play the point in halfcourt sets but the Mocs present a different kind challenge with their pressure. The Illini will miss Jaylon Tate with his ability to control the rock, and Coleman-Lands will need to show his ability as a ball-handler. He is better suited than Hill to get it past the halfcourt line, and having him in that position allows Groce to ration Lewis' minutes and play a more desirable offensive lineup. After beating the press, the Illini need to move the ball and take advantage of Chattanooga's aggressiveness. There will be open lanes off the dribble, and Illinois can exploit them by making smart passes and avoiding costly turnovers.

3. Limit second-chance opportunities. Fans will remember the missed chances during Illinois' final possession against Providence, but giving up offensive boards were the killer. The Friars had 18 second-chance points on 16 offensive rebounds, and they took their final lead after an offensive rebound and made free throw with 43 seconds left on the clock. If the Illini can clean the defensive glass, they can prevent Chattanooga from setting up their press. A big key will be the ability of the Illinois guards to block out on the perimeter. Of course, it starts with playing sound defense and forcing misses. 

Prediction

The Illini will be forced to be ready for a quick turnaround, which is good to remove the bad taste from Wednesday, but they'll be tested to have fresh legs in this one. Hill admitted that Thursday mostly included recovery after the late-game grind against Providence. On the other side, Chattanooga has been off since Monday. This has been a challenging test for the Orange and Blue, who have simulated an NBA-like schedule with tough opponents lined up in a short span. The Mocs aren't an easy matchup for the Illini, and like North Florida, they will play with a high level of confidence against their high-major counterpart. Illinois has not started 1-3 since the 1965-66 season, and they will have to fight to keep it that way. The Illini should have enough to get it done, and going into next week with positive momentum will be crucial.

Illinois 74, Chattanooga 70


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