PREVIEW: Illinois vs Yale

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois vs. Yale on Wednesday night.

Illinois (4-5) vs.

Yale (5-3)

Date & Time: Dec. 9, 7 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPN3

Quick Hits

  • Yale went 22-10 last season and lost in the conference playoff game against Harvard for a chance to go to the NCAA tournament.
  • Bulldogs forward Justin Sears was the Ivy League Player of the Year last season, and he was the preseason pick to win the award this year.
  • Yale is a veteran-laden group, as seven of their top eight scorers are upperclassmen.
  • Illinois is 2-0 all-time against Yale, and they won their last matchup 73-47 in Nov. 2010.
  • Illini junior Kendrick Nunn (27) and redshirt freshman Michael Finke (24) are coming off career-highs in points.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate made his first start since the season opener on Saturday, and he posted five points, three assists and three turnovers in 25 minutes. The Illini will need a good showing at point guard, as they face another tough challenge at the position.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan played his most complete game against Western Carolina when you consider both ends of the floor. The sharpshooting freshman was 0-of-3 from deep, but he scored eight points, registered two steals and took a big step forward on defense.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn scorched the nets for a career-high 27 points on Saturday despite being left out of the starting lineup. His aggressiveness and ability to make shots have been huge for the Illini, and John Groce said he played his best defense of the season against Western Carolina.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Groce sent a message to Hill by benching him for more than seven minutes to start the second half on Saturday. Hill responded by making plays down the stretch, as he finished with 10 points and five rebounds. The Illini need their best player to put it all together.

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke had the Orange Krush chanting his name at the end of Saturday's game, and deservingly so. The redshirt freshman played with a high level of confidence in scoring a career-high 24 points, while also posting six rebounds. Finke is averaging 14 points over the last three games, while shooting higher than 69 percent from the field.

Bench

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin made his sixth start of the year on Saturday, and he totaled two points, two assists and three rebounds in 12 minutes. Groce continues to allocate significant minutes to Austin given his ability to defend, rebound and take care of the ball.

Leron Black (SO): It's no secret that Black is nowhere close to 100 percent. The sophomore forward has had a rough go offensively by going 1-of-11 from the field over the last two games. He's also had issues with foul trouble, as he fouled out in just nine minutes against Western Carolina.

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan has come back to reality a little bit in recent games. He is still shooting higher than 64 percent from the field, but he had just two points, two rebounds and three turnovers in nine minutes on Saturday. Morgan has had just five rebounds in the last three games combined.

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis finished with two points, two assists and two rebounds in 15 minutes against Western Carolina. He has done a great job of taking care of the ball during the last two games by playing 31 minutes combined without a turnover.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands has been riding the freshman roller coaster when it comes to points production. He followed up a 14-point outing against Notre Dame by going scoreless in 11 minutes against Western Carolina on Saturday.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams saw the floor for the first time in four games on Saturday. The freshman forward had one rebound and a steal in eight minutes of action.

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

Yale Starters

Makai Mason (SO): Mason is the engine that drives the Bulldogs, as he leads the team with 16.8 points and 4.6 assists per game. He joins Kris DunnMonte Morris, Demetrius Jackson and Dallas Moore on a tough slate of point guard opponents for the Illini in the nonconference.

Jack Montague (SR): The senior captain is a dangerous threat from the outside by shooting 44.2 percent from deep. Montague is averaging 11.6 points per game this season, and he hit six threes in a win over Lehigh earlier this year.

Nick Victor (SR): Victor makes an impact in a variety of ways in the Yale backcourt. The 6-foot-5 guard leads the team with 7.8 rebounds per game, and he also averages 6.1 points per contest. Victor is second on the team in blocks and third in assists as well.

Brandon Sherrod (SR): Sherrod spent last season away from the basketball court, as he travelled with the Yale Whiffenpoofs (student a cappella group). But don't let his Pitch Perfect ways fool you. The 6-foot-6 forward is a load at 240 pounds, and he is averaging 9.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

Justin Sears (SR): Sears is a big-time player for the Bulldogs, which is why he is predicted to win Player of the Year in the Ivy League for the second straight season. The 6-foot-8 forward sports great length (7-foot-3 wingspan) and athleticism in the frontcourt, and he will put Illinois' big men to the test. He is averaging 15.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game this season.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Defend for 40 minutes. The defensive stats are not pretty for the Illini through the first nine games of this season. They are allowing opponents to shoot 38.7 percent from three, which puts them at 310th of 351 D-1 programs. The Illini are also giving up more than 75 points per game. We have seen good stretches from the Orange and Blue at that end of the floor: First half vs. Notre Dame and the last eight minutes vs. Western Carolina. But Groce has struggled to get a sustained defensive effort for 40 minutes since the win against UAB. Groce said his team decided to get stingy on defense down the stretch on Saturday. Now, the key is to have that mindset and level of execution from the tip. Yale does not shoot the three particularly well as a team (34 percent), but that hasn't stopped opponents from lighting it up against Illinois. The Illini will need to minimize the space given to Montague on the outside, but most importantly, they must step up their defense on the interior against Sears and Sherrod. Yale likes to spread the floor and they show their experience with how smoothly they move the ball. Simply put, Illinois has a tough task on their hands and they will not come away with a win if they just defend in spurts. 

2. Get off to a fast start. The Illini need to get things rolling early on and set the tone in this one. There isn't a better way to utilize home-court advantage than to get some early buckets, make stops and have the Krush bouncing with energy. Yale isn't going to be intimidated by the atmosphere or the opponent, though. They battled Duke at Cameron Indoor and stormed out of the gate with a 9-0 lead. They also took an eight-point lead into the half at SMU. The Bulldogs are going to be ready to go, and the Illini need to be as well. Nunn and Finke carried the Orange and Blue in the first half on Saturday. The Illini could use more of the same, and it would be big for them to get Hill going early too.

3. Finke will be the X-factor. The hometown product was given the hero treatment on Saturday against Western Carolina, as he posted the most points by an Illini freshman since Demetri McCamey. Heading into this season, Finke was expected to provide some scoring off the bench while still adjusting to the college game. But after nine games into this season, he has become one of the most crucial performers on the roster. Finke will be tested in a big way in this one. Not only do the Illini need him to be a reliable third scoring option, but he needs to be ready to defend and rebound against an experienced Yale frontcourt. Finke made strides on the glass and defensively on Saturday, but this is an entirely different challenge. Yale is top-20 in the country in rebounding margin, and Sears can score at a high level around the hoop. 

Prediction

The Illini are in uncharted territory trying to get back to .500 in mid-December. But that's what happens when you mix together a challenging nonconference slate, a string of injuries and inconsistent execution. Yale presents some unfavorable matchups for the Illini, and their overall experience adds to the challenge. Groce hopes that his team can build on how they finished against Western Carolina. But Yale (No. 86) is 116 spots higher than Western Carolina in the KenPom rankings, and they're even ranked higher than the Illini (No. 90). Illinois has lost their last nine games against teams ranked in the KenPom top 100 - dating back to last February. Someway, somehow, sometime that has to change.

Illinois 75, Yale 71


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