PREVIEW: Illinois vs Western Carolina

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with Western Carolina on Saturday.

Illinois (3-5) vs.

Western Carolina (3-4)

Date & Time: Dec. 5, 2 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPN 3

Quick Hits

  • Western Carolina went 15-17 last season and finished fourth in the Southern Conference standings with a 9-9 record.
  • The Catamounts senior guard Mike Brown was a preseason All-Southern Conference selection.
  • Western Carolina lost by 20-plus points against both power conference opponents this season.
  • Illinois is 2-0 all-time against Western Carolina, and they won 72-64 in their last meeting in 2012.
  • Illini assistant coach Dustin Ford played for Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter at Ohio University, and he also coached under him at Western Carolina.
  • The Illini saw a 36-game winning streak at the State Farm Center against nonconference opponents come to an end on Wednesday night.

Projected Starters

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis had seven points, three rebounds and one assist against Notre Dame. But he played just seven minutes in the second half.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in 37 minutes on Wednesday night. However, he made just two shots in the second half and finished 2-of-11 from three.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill had a strong stat line against Notre Dame with 19 points, four steals, three rebounds and three assists. But the most telling stat was that he did not take a shot during a crucial 12-minute stretch in the second half.

Leron Black (SO): Black had a rough night offensively on Wednesday by going 1-of-7 from the field with two points. He did corral seven rebounds, but he still doesn't look 100 percent since his return.

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan finished with six points and one rebound against Notre Dame. His lack of rebounding and defense resulted in him playing just six minutes in the second half.

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands continues to show that he can shoot it from deep, as he hit four threes and finished with 14 points on Wednesday. Unfortunately, his defensive mistakes often negate his offensive production.

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke finished with 13 points in 20 minutes against Notre Dame. But like Morgan, he provided just one rebound and got beat defensively.

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate had six assists and no turnovers in 15 minutes on Wednesday night. But he failed to score and only took one shot.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin was a topic of discussion for Illini fans after playing 22 minutes and going 1-of-5 from the field against Notre Dame. He is Illinois' best perimeter defender, but he has not been good offensively.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan hit a three in the first half on Wednesday, but he played just four minutes on the game. The freshman guard still needs to earn John Groce's trust at the defensive end.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams did not play on Wednesday night, which marked the third straight game he did not see the floor.

Cameron Liss (SO): Liss has not played so far this season.

Western Carolina Starters

Rhett Harrelson (SR): Harrelson is an undersized point guard who can heat up from three. He is averaging 9.8 points per game, while shooting 37.1 percent from deep.

Mike Brown (SR): Brown leads the Catamounts with 16.1 points and 2.6 assists per game. The veteran guard utilizes his athleticism to get to the basket and draw contact.

Haboubacar Mutombo (R-SO): Mutombo is averaging 3.1 points and 2.1 rebounds per game, while shooting 42.9 percent from the field. He has started three of the Catamounts' seven games.

Justin Browning (SR): What Browning lacks in size, he makes up for in effort. He is averaging 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

Torrion Brummitt (SR): Brummitt is averaging 14 points per game, and he leads the team with 6.1 rebounds per game. He plays the five at just 6-foot-7, but he doesn't get pushed around with his 240-pound frame.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Attack the basket. The first thing Groce noted in talking about Western Carolina is that they play a physical brand of basketball. They are aggressive at the defensive end, and they aren't afraid to bump you and try to knock the ball loose. The Catamounts have forced more than 16 turnovers per game on average. However, their aggressiveness causes them to foul at a high volume. Opponents have averaged more than 26 free throw attempts per game against Western Carolina. The Illini would be doing them a favor by settling for too many jump shots. Groce was pleased with his team's offensive execution against Notre Dame, even in the second half when they struggled to find a bucket. The Illini can set the tone by driving off the bounce and creating contact. This will also force the defense to collapse and open things up for shooters on the outside. Orange and Blue fans would love to see Hill be the aggressor after taking a passive approach down the stretch of the last two games.

2. Capitalize from the size advantage. Notre Dame center Zach Auguste was a tough matchup for the Illini frontcourt in their first full game without Mike Thorne Jr. Finke and Morgan were exploited at times defensively, and they combined for just two rebounds in 33 minutes. Battling on the glass is not in their makeup, but they have to make some strides with their size advantage in this one. Western Carolina was outrebounded by at least 15 in losses against Cincinnati and South Carolina earlier this season. It is still unknown when, or if, Thorne will return this year. The Illini did just fine as a team in the rebounding battle against Notre Dame (35-33 ND). But big tests await Illinois' big men down the road in the Big Ten. Finke and Morgan need to be able to do more than just put points on the board.

3. Find the swagger at the defensive end. It looked like the Illini found their mojo defensively down in Florida, and they executed at that end during the first half on Wednesday night. But Groce saw his team revert back to old habits in the final 20 minutes. The frustrated head coach said he is tired of witnessing the same mistakes over and over again. He added that the Illini needed to have a nastiness about them and take pride in keeping opponents from lighting up the scoreboard. Illinois has given up 76.6 points per game this season, which puts them at No. 265 in the country. Western Carolina is not what you'd call a talented offensive team. They are shooting under 40 percent as a group, and 29.5 percent from three - despite shooting more than 26 triples per game. The Illini need to get back on track defensively, and they have a perfect opportunity to do so. It will important that they avoid relaxing against a lesser opponent, unlike their clash with Chicago State.

Prediction

The Illini have played six of their eight games against NCAA tournament teams from last season, including their last three contests. Saturday's matchup with Western Carolina begins a more favorable stretch of the schedule, but the Illini shouldn't act as such. This team should be hungry for victories, while also looking to take out some built up frustration. If Illinois brings the same level of effort as they did in the previous three games, while executing up to par, they should come away with a comfortable victory.

Illinois 80, Western Carolina 62


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