PREVIEW: Illinois vs UIC

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' trip to the United Center to take on UIC.

Illinois (5-5) vs. UIC (1-5)

Time & Date: Dec. 12, 1 p.m. CT

Location: United Center (Chicago, Ill.)

TV: ESPN3

Quick Hits

  • UIC went 10-24 last season and finished seventh in the Horizon League standings.
  • The Flames are coached by first-year head coach and former Indiana assistant Steve McClain.
  • UIC's only win came against an NAIA team, and they are currently ranked No. 331 of 351 D-1 programs - per the KenPom rankings.
  • Illinois is 13-2 all-time against UIC, and they won their last matchup 74-60 in 2013.
  • The Illini are 5-5 in their last 10 regular season games at the United Center, and they are 2-1 there under John Groce.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate was fairly quiet against Yale on Wednesday night with two points, one assist and one steal in 19 minutes. Point production at the point guard position has been sparse, and that certainly isn't likely to change once the Illini hit Big Ten play.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan earned his third start of the season against Yale, but he did not have a good shooting night going 1-of-6 from the field. There's no question that John Groce has gained trust in Jordan over the last week, but they key is consistency.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn has been as hot as any player in college basketball over the last two games - shooting 60 percent from the field and 69.2 percent from deep. He set a new career-high with 28 points against Yale, which was key to Illinois pull out the win.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Illini fans were encouraged by the assertiveness that Hill displayed on Wednesday night. He finished with 20 points on 7-of-19 from the field, while also posting seven assists and five rebounds.

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke had a slow start against Yale by going scoreless in the first half and struggling to defend inside. But he made a few plays down the stretch to finish with six points and four rebounds.

Bench

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis finished with two points, no assists and one steal in 22 minutes against Yale. It was his first outing without an assist this season.

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan had a productive stretch in the first half on Wednesday night, as he scored six points in less than a three-minute span. He has shown that he can score with his back to the basket if the matchup is right.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands went scoreless for the second straight game on Wednesday by going 0-of-6 from the field. The sharpshooting freshman has been off the mark recently, as he has gone 0-of-6 from three since hitting four triples against Notre Dame last week.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin played 13 minutes against Yale, and he posted no points, two rebounds and one steal. The Eastern Illinois transfer shot higher than 36 percent from three as a freshman, but he has not been an offensive threat at all in an Illini uniform.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams had two points and one assist in four minutes on Wednesday. His layup in the first half was his first bucket since the season opener.

Leron Black (SO): Black was sidelined with a lingering knee injury on Wednesday, and Groce said that he would be surprised if Black played on Saturday against UIC.

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

UIC Starters

Dominique Matthews (FR): Matthews has made three starts this season, and he is averaging seven points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He is the brother of former Illini recruit and current Kentucky guard Charles Matthews.

Lance Whitaker (R-SO): Whitaker is averaging 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds, while playing more than 20 minutes per game.

Dikembe Dixson (FR): Dixson leads the Flames with 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-7 freshman has started all six games for UIC this season.

Jake Wiegand (SR): Wiegand is one of the few upperclassmen on the UIC roster, and he is averaging 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Tai Odiase (SO): Odiase is averaging 10.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game as a 6-foot-9 sophomore. He and Dixson are the only Flames who have started every game.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Come ready to play. With a relatively early tip and a lackluster opponent, the Illini need to make sure not to sleep walk through the United Center on Saturday. UIC is one of the worst Division I teams in college basketball statistically. They are shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 25.6 percent from deep, while also turning it over more than 15 times per game. According to the KenPom rankings, UIC has the worst effective field goal percentage in the country. As tough of a start Illinois has had to this season, UIC has no business being anywhere close to winning this game. All the Illini need to do is show up and play their game.

2. Build confidence with the freshmen. With just three games left until Big Ten play, this is a perfect opportunity for the Illini freshmen to get things going. Coleman-Lands and Jordan will have a great chance to get back on track offensively. Meanwhile, the Illini can hopefully let Williams loose and see what he has to offer in a larger sample size. Groce went 10-deep against Yale on Wednesday, and that looks to be the philosophy he'd like to use. It's all hinges on how much he can rely on his freshmen. Groce said on Friday that they are still making a number of defensive mistakes in practice, but he sees the progress they've made as well. Taking a few more steps in the right direction would be huge before the run through the Big Ten gauntlet.

3. Rebound as a team. The Illini got destroyed on the glass against Yale, who is a top-20 rebounding team in the country. Nevertheless, Illinois needs to find a way to be better without Mike Thorne Jr. and Black. Finke and Morgan are only going to give you so much on the backboards. Groce said that his team needs to focus on "gang rebounding" to make up for the losses down low. UIC has gotten beat in nearly every statistical category when looking at the total numbers, except for rebounding. They are averaging 44.2 rebounds per game, including more than 16 offensive boards per contest. That is partially a product of their run 'n gun style, which creates more possessions in the game, but they will still present a challenge to the Illini in that area.

Prediction

Illini fans have not forgotten what happened when the Orange and Blue played UIC at the United Center in 2010. Illinois was No. 12 in the country heading into that one, but fell in a face-palm battle 57-54. There will always be the fear of a repeat, especially after how the Illini struggled with lowly Chicago State last month. It provides no comfort that Chicago State is actually ranked lower than UIC in the KenPom rankings at this moment in time. That being said, the Flames have lost their last three games to Drake, DePaul and UCF by an average margin of 26 points per game. The Illini have every reason to run away with this one.

Illinois 84, UIC 64


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