PREVIEW: Illinois vs UAB

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' first challenge in the Emerald Coast Classic against UAB on Friday night.

Illinois (2-3) vs.

UAB (3-1)

Date & Time: Nov. 27, 8:30 p.m. CT

Location: The Arena at Northwest Florida State College (Niceville, Fla.)

TV: CBS Sports Network

Quick Hits

  • UAB went 20-16 last season and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament after upsetting No. 3 seed Iowa State.
  • The Blazers returned their top six scorers from last season, and they were the preseason pick to win the Conference USA.
  • UAB is 1-0 all-time against Illinois, as they defeated the Illini 59-51 in the Great Alaska Shootout in 1984.
  • The Illini have won two Thanksgiving-week tournaments under John Groce: Las Vegas Invitational (2014) and Maui Invitational (2012).
  • Illinois is 2-6 in their last eight games dating back to last season.

Projected Starters

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis posted eight points, three assists and two steals in 24 minutes against Chicago State. The graduate transfer has been serviceable but it's no secret that the Illini are missing Jaylon Tate running the show - even with his flaws.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands was the hero on Monday with his buzzer-beater, although disaster-saver may be a better description. He got hot at the right time from deep, but Coleman-Lands had four turnovers and he continues to make costly mistakes at the defensive end.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin did a little bit of everything during his 29 minutes against Chicago State, as he finished with eight points, five rebounds and three assists. Austin is clearly Illinois' best defender on the perimeter, which makes him valuable despite shooting 2-of-12 from deep this season.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill found a way to make plays on Monday night, and his steal with 38 seconds left allowed Lewis to tie the game. Hill finished with 12 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. He's answered the call from a production standpoint, but the Illini need more from him in the leadership department.

Mike Thorne (GR): Thorne had another slow offensive start on Monday, as he didn't score his first bucket until the second half. But the big man still finished with a nice stat line of 12 points and nine rebounds. Illinois needs a consistent 40 minutes from Thorne, but at least he brings the necessary intensity from start to finish.


Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke was Illinois' best offensive weapon for most the game against Chicago State, and he finished with a team-high 17 points on the night. Defense and rebounding are the only things keeping Finke out of the starting lineup, but there's no questioning the value he brings off the bench.

Aaron Jordan (FR): The sharpshooting freshmen is hitting threes at a 47.6 percent clip so far this season. He had eight points, including a pair of triples, against Chicago State. But like the rest of Groce's freshman class, the Illini need Jordan to grow up in a hurry at the defensive end.

Leron Black (SO): Black was held out of action on Monday due to swelling and soreness in his knee. The hope is that he will be ready to go on Friday after a stretch of rehab and rest. Black hasn't looked like the same player since his return to game action.

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan had three points and two rebounds in eight minutes against Chicago State. The junior big man is shooting 60 percent from the field.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams has had a rocky start to his collegiate career, as he is shooting just over 22 percent from the field. He was 0-of-4 in 12 minutes against Chicago State, and he also had a pair of turnovers. Williams has a ways to go to prove his value on this team.

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate missed his fourth straight game on Monday, and the Illini are anxiously awaiting his return. Groce said his starting point guard is still day-to-day after having the stitches removed from his finger. Tate doesn't shoot it well but his leadership and playmaking ability have been sorely missed.

UAB Starters

Nick Norton (SO): The Bloomington Central Catholic product is averaging 6.8 points, 4.8 assists and four rebounds per game this season. Despite a slow start from deep thus far, Norton is a viable threat from beyond the arc after shooting 39.1 percent from three as a freshman.

Hakeem Baxter (JR): Baxter can be tough to guard with his quickness and ability to attack off the dribble. He is averaging 6.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

Robert Brown (R-SR): Brown led the Blazers in scoring last season, and he is averaging 8.8 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game this year. The 6-foot-5 guard is a big key to UAB's attack, and he posted 46 points combined in two NCAA tournament games back in March.

William Lee (SO): Versatility is a virtue, and Lee brings that to the UAB frontcourt. He is averaging 4.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game this season. Lee has yet to find his offensive groove this year (29.2 percent from the field), but the Illini have to make sure it stays that way.

Tosin Mehinti (JR): Mehinti is averaging 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game this season, and he has converted on 63.6 percent of his field goal attempts. The 6-foot-9 big man brings high energy and toughness in the paint.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Just guard somebody. The Illini have made that simple-sounding task look painfully difficult through the first five games. They did a great job of containing preseason All-American Kris Dunn at Providence, but their overall team defense has been lacking in a big way. The mistakes have been obvious and numerous. The Illini have given up easy drives and wide open threes in bunches. The good news is that UAB is not a quality jump-shooting team, and they are shooting just 27.1 percent from long range this year. However, Chicago State found a way to light it up on Monday. The Illini are allowing opponents to shoot 42.6 percent from the field (No. 278 in the country) and 41.3 percent from three (No. 322). Executing assignments and identifying personnel are important ingredients to success, but it ultimately boils down to effort and pride at that end of the floor. This team has been lacking in all areas, and they'll face a big test in stopping UAB's penetration and interior attack.

2. Come out with fire. The uninspired brand of basketball that Illinois has played with to start four of their first five games has been unacceptable. The Illini have allowed their opponents to be the aggressor, while seemingly waiting to get repeatedly punched in the mouth before coming to fight. That is a trait that needs to be erased in a hurry, and it's on Groce to find the answers. One of the biggest talking points of the offseason was that this team is as close as it's ever been during Groce's tenure and that they have a will to fight for each other. The Illini have displayed that during comeback stretches in the second half, but it shouldn't turn off and on like a light switch. It's time for a wakeup call.

3. Be ready to battle down low. If the Illini are going to win this game, they have to hold their own in the paint. UAB loves to attack the basket with their guards, and they have a talented set of bigs as well. Sophomore forward Chris Cokley is the Blazers' best player, and he comes off the bench. Cokley is an imposing challenge with his motor and 6-foot-8, 241-pound frame. He is averaging 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game this season, while shooting 54.7 percent from the field. UAB is also top-60 in the country in rebounding margin. That will place a heavy burden on Thorne and the rest of the Illini frontcourt to defend and compete on the glass. This will be yet another test of toughness for the Orange and Blue.


There comes a time when players need to decide the direction of their season. Coleman-Lands' buzzer-beater against Chicago State was an opportunity for the Illini to realize what needs to change without taking a crushing loss. There are plenty of reasons to pick against Illinois based on Monday's struggles and an NCAA tournament foe awaiting. UAB is tough and experienced, while the Orange and Blue are still banged up and learning how to adopt winning habits.

UAB 74, Illinois 70

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