PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Winthrop

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' game vs. Winthrop on Monday night.

Illinois (4-0) vs.

Winthrop (2-1)

Date & Time: Nov. 21, 7 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPN 3

Quick Hits

  • Illinois is off to a 4-0 start, and they have won 35 straight games in Champaign during the month of November.
  • Monday night's game will be the fifth home game in 11 days to start the season for the Illini.
  • Illinois senior Malcolm Hill is third in the Big Ten with 22.3 points per game.
  • The Illini have won each of their four games by at least 15 points, and they defeated Detroit 89-69 last Friday.
  • Winthrop is coming off a 100-86 loss at Florida State, in which they were without senior point guard Keon Johnson (foot).
  • Johnson is the preseason Player of the Year in the Big South after averaging 18.7 points per game last season.
  • The Eagles won 23 games last season, but lost in the Big South tournament championship for a shot at the NCAA tournament.
  • Winthrop is 0-5 all-time against Big Ten opponents.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate has the best plus/minus of any player on the team at +99, and he is coming off an outing with a career-high 12 points to go along with six assists. He is averaging 5.8 assists per game.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams has gone 9-of-11 from deep to start the season, and he had 15 points with a pair of triples on Friday against Detroit. He entered this season shooting below 27 percent from three in his career.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill's 40-point performance against Northern Kentucky on Nov. 13 is tied for the second most points by anyone thus far in the NCAA. Friday may have been his most complete game this season with 25 points, six rebounds and two steals.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke had just five points last Friday after scoring in double figures during the first three games. He is still averaging 11 points, along with a team-high eight rebounds per game.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan fouled out against Detroit, and he didn't record a rebound in 17 minutes of play. He has nine rebounds in 89 minutes this season, but he's second on the team with 12 points per game.

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands had six points and six boards against Detroit. He has hit eight of his last 14 attempts from long range.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams continues to be a 'flash' player. He's made three field goals in three out of the four games.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black will make his season debut on Monday, and he hasn't played in a game since Dec. 5, 2015 against Western Carolina.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Despite still looking rusty at times, Thorne has combined for 21 points and 17 rebounds over the last two games. He was 4-of-4 from the field against Detroit.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan had 11 points, two rebounds, two steals and two assists against McKendree last week. He is scoreless in 32 minutes combined in the three other games.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had three points and an assist in six minutes last Friday. He is a perfect 5-of-5 on the season, but he's played fewer minutes than any active scholarship player on the team.

Winthrop Starters

Keon Johnson (SR): Johnson is a jet-quick offensive dynamo at 5-foot-7. He is a pace-setter by testing the defense off the dribble. He draws fouls, hits pull-up jumpers and strokes it from deep. Johnson had five games with at least 30 points last year.

Bjorn Broman (SO): Broman had 16 points and five assists in Johnson's absence last Friday. He is a threat from beyond the arc, and the Eagles like to use him both on and off the ball.

Anders Broman (R-JR): The other Broman brother is playing his first season at Winthrop after transferring from South Dakota State. He is a capable ball-handler as well, but he is more apt to make plays off the dribble.

Xavier Cooks (JR): Cooks is another preseason first-team All-Big South selection on Winthrop's roster. He has a unique skill set at 6-foot-8, who plays like a guard at the four-spot. He's very skilled and versatile, and don't sleep on his outside shot. Cooks was top-10 in the conference in scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding and blocked shots last season.

Duby Okeke (R-JR): Okeke is averaging 7.7 points and seven rebounds through three games. He's physical with long arms at 6-foot-8, and he finishes around the basket. He makes a big impact defensively too, as he set a school record with 72 blocks last season. Okeke is eligible to be a fifth-year transfer after this season.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Stop the dribble-drive. Winthrop is a team that attacks with confidence on the offensive end. Johnson is the motor that makes it all go, and Illinois expects him to be back after his day-to-day foot injury. He's extremely difficult to contain off the dribble. The Eagles love to spread you out with four-guard looks, and they will drive and kick for three-point attempts all day long if you allow it. Illinois has struggled giving up the three-ball in games this season, and they were terrible in that area last year. The Eagles will be a dangerous test in that regard. All four starting guards are capable of hitting the three, and Rodney Perkins (42.9 percent) is a knock-down shooter off the bench. Containing Winthrop starts with containing the dribble-drive. The Eagles will also use the drive to get to the free throw line -- Johnson in particular. They'll also look to get by you with Cooks against less mobile fours. As a whole, Illinois will be scrambling and in a load of trouble if they can't provide perimeter resistance.

2. Attack the inside. The Eagles have a pretty good shot-blocker in Okeke, but they are vulnerable on the interior. In their loss to Florida State, Winthrop gave up 50 points in the paint. That was a product of Florida State's guards using driving lanes, and also utilizing their athletically-superior frontcourt. The Illini don't have that kind physical athleticism with their guys that are 6-foot-10 and taller. But they should still be able to make plays on the interior with the offensive capability of Morgan, Thorne and Finke. Illini head coach John Groce said on Sunday that he wants to throw it inside, and he wants those guys to post harder. It will be important that Hill also takes advantage of his ability off the bounce. He's gotten to the free-throw line 10 times per game against D-I opponents this year, and he's shooting 83.3 percent from the stripe. Winthrop did not stop drives to the hoop well at all against the Seminoles.

3. Leron Black effect. There's absolutely no doubt that Illinois is getting Black back at a key time in the nonconference schedule, as this is the first of five challenging games in a row. Black has the potential to be the X-factor for the Illini this season. He's played very well in practice. He feels great physically, and his motor is kicked into high gear as usual. He's hitting the mid-range jumper at a high percentage. And he's an outstanding rebounder. Illinois would love to add all of that to what they have on the court right now, and they'll get that chance on Monday. Black hasn't played a game since last December, though. You can bet he'll be amped up, but will it be too much? He's fouled frequently due to his aggression in the past, which has limited his effectiveness. Black said on Sunday that he feels much better about that part of his game, but we'll have to see it in action. 

Prediction

Winthrop is a team that's already being tabbed as a potential bracket-buster in March, and they could certainly bust your undefeated record early in the season too. The Eagles will not be intimidated in the slightest by this high-major opponent, or any for that matter. Illinois will have their hands full, and this is a great test to push them to their top-end ability before heading out to Brooklyn. These teams are similar in that they have plenty of scoring ability, but they will give up points as well. In the end, the Illini should score a little bit more. But as Groce said on Sunday, he's going to need all hands on deck.

Illinois 84, Winthrop 77


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