PREVIEW: Illinois vs Notre Dame

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews the reopening of the State Farm Center on Wednesday night when the Illini take on Notre Dame.

Illinois (3-4) vs.

Notre Dame (4-2)

Date & Time: Dec. 2, 8:15 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPN 2

Quick Hits

  • Notre Dame went 32-6 last season and advanced to the Elite Eight as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
  • The Irish won the most games in school history last year, and they return three starters from that team.
  • Illinois is 27-13 all-time against Notre Dame, but the Irish won the last matchup 68-60 in 2003 during the second round of the NCAA tournament.
  • Notre Dame last played Illinois in Champaign in 1963, and the Illini won 87-78.
  • Illinois is 1-2 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge under John Groce, and the Illini are 7-9 since it began in 1999.
  • The Big Ten won last year's challenge 8-6, but the ACC has won 10 of the 16 challenges (two ties).
  • The Illini will honor Lou Henson at halftime and officially dedicate the State Farm Center court in his name.

Projected Starters

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis made his sixth straight start at point guard on Saturday, and he finished with two points, five assists and two turnovers against Iowa State. Jaylon Tate figures to be the starter when he is right, but he may not be there yet.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands had five points and a pair of turnovers against Iowa State. He is shooting 45.5 percent from deep this season, and the Illini need him to step up against a team who recruited him heavily.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn made a huge difference for the Illini in his return, as he scored 37 points combined in the two games at the Emerald Coast Classic. He has not been shy when it comes to shooting the rock, and that's just fine.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill led the Illini with 20 points against Iowa State on Saturday, despite taking just five shots in the second half. He is the catalyst for this team, and it will be crucial that he brings his A-game against the Irish.

Leron Black (SO): Black still may not be 100 percent, but his role just became even bigger with Mike Thorne Jr. going down. Black played the five during the second half against Iowa State, and he finished with eight points and eight rebounds.

Bench

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan played just 10 minutes against Iowa State, as he finished with no points and two turnovers. But Morgan has been impressive with his offensive efficiency so far this season by shooting 67.7 percent from the field. Can he bring it against tough opponents?

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke had five points and one rebound in seven minutes on Saturday. His ability to score makes him a valuable piece off the bench, but the Illini need him to step up with his defense and rebounding in Thorne's absence.

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate had four points, two assists and two turnovers against Iowa State in 12 minutes. He had five turnovers and three assists during the two games at the Emerald Coast Classic.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan was scoreless in 13 minutes on Saturday, and he did not play against UAB in the game prior. He is shooting 45.5 percent from deep on the season, but his role has been reduced with Nunn back in action.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin played sparingly last weekend after Nunn's return, and he registered just one minute against Iowa State. The Illini will still look to use him in spots for his defense, but playing 20-plus minutes is a thing of the past.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams did not see the floor during the Emerald Coast Classic, and that isn't likely to change against Notre Dame.

Cameron Liss (R-SO): The walk-on forward has not played so far this season.

Notre Dame Starters

Demetrius Jackson (JR): The Illini are well aware of Jackson's talents, as he was a top target for Groce after he got the job in Champaign. Jackson leads the Irish with 18.3 points and 4.5 assists per game, and he is shooting higher than 52 percent from the field.

Steve Vasturia (JR): Vasturia is a dangerous threat from long range by hitting threes at a 40 percent clip so far this season. He is averaging 12.7 points per game.

Bonzie Colson (SO): Colson is a big-bodied wing who makes an impact in a variety of ways. He is averaging 8.8 points and seven rebounds per game, and he leads the Irish with eight blocks on the season.

V.J. Beachem (JR): Beachem will present problems with his length and ability to shoot from the outside. The 6-foot-8 forward is shooting 42.5 percent from deep, and he is averaging 12.5 points and six rebounds per game.

Zach Auguste (SR): The Irish won't be doing Illinois any favors in Thorne's absence, as Auguste is one of the toughest down-low matchups they will face all season. The 6-foot-10 big man has supreme athleticism, and he is averaging 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Limit the damage in the paint. Without Thorne on the court, it's no secret that the Illini are going to be outmatched down low on Wednesday night. Thorne led the Illini with 8.4 rebounds per game, and his absence was blatantly obvious on the backboard against Iowa State. Illinois was outrebounded 24-to-11 in the second half on Saturday. Now, the Illini are set to match up with a center who averages a double-double and ranks top-20 in the country in rebounding. Black is more defensively inclined and better on the glass than Morgan and Finke. However, he has a significant size disadvantage against Auguste. Groce said on Tuesday that he isn't worried about one-on-one matchups at the five, as he is looking for his team to defend and rebound as a unit. That being said, Morgan and Finke have to be significantly better in that area. The Illini can't win if they are utterly dominated in the paint.

2. Execute on the perimeter. The Illini played their best defensive game against UAB last Friday, and their success was a product of their ability to guard on the outside. Notre Dame will present a tougher challenge, but the key remains the same. Illinois must keep the ball in front of them, force turnovers in the passing lanes and limit post feeds. This will help to curb the mismatch down low. That is easier said than done, though, and Jackson will be tough to stop. The Illini allowed Iowa State point guard Monte Morris to post 20 points, six assists and no turnovers on Saturday. They also struggled mightily with North Florida point guard Dallas Moore in the opener. The pressure will be on Lewis and Tate to slow down Jackson's attack. The Illini may elect to play zone to collapse driving lanes and play team defense on the interior. However, that would leave them susceptible from long range and the Irish certainly know how to shoot it at 38 percent from deep.

3. Get a collective effort offensively. Illinois has shown they can put points on the board, especially with Nunn providing a big-time scoring punch in the backcourt. Hill and Nunn combined for 39 points against Iowa State, and the Illini will need more of the same on Wednesday night. But it can't just be a two-man show. The Illini must get big contributions from their supporting cast in order to pull this one out. That puts the focus on Black, Coleman-Lands and Finke especially. The Orange and Blue were oh so close to upsetting Providence with Coleman-Lands (17 points) and Finke (12) rising to the occasion. A performance or two like that, intertwined with Nunn and Hill leading the way, would put the Illini in position to bring home a victory.

Prediction

The State Farm Center will be rocking on Wednesday night with Illini nation excited to break in the new digs with a victory. Emotions will be running high given the atmosphere and a high-level opponent. The stage is set much like Illinois' battle with Maryland last season, as the Illini pulled off a gritty win after Rayvonte Rice broke his hand. The hope is that they can do the same without Thorne. Unfortunately, Notre Dame presents a huge challenge down low and with their versatile offensive attack. The Irish are No. 5 in the country in offensive efficiency - per the Ken Pom rankings. Groce's team has continued to fight on through an incredible amount of adversity, and they will do the same in this one. The home crowd can make a sizeable impact, but key matchups ultimately favor the Irish.

Notre Dame 79, Illinois 75


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