PREVIEW: Illinois vs. West Virginia

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' tough Thanksgiving Day test against West Virginia in Brooklyn.

Illinois (4-1) vs.

No. 19 West Virginia (3-0)

Date & Time: Nov. 24, 2 p.m. CT

Location: Barclays Center (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

TV: ESPNU

Quick Hits

  • Illinois had a 35-game November winning streak at the State Farm Center snapped on Monday with an 84-80 loss to Winthrop in overtime.
  • The Illini are looking for their first nonconference win vs. a ranked opponent since Dec. 21, 2014 vs. Missouri.
  • John Groce is 2-5 against ranked nonconference opponents during his tenure at Illinois.
  • The Illini lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage (50.5), and they're 16th nationally in made threes per game (10.6).
  • Illinois is 20-12 under Groce in neutral-site games.
  • West Virginia is off to an undefeated start after beating New Hampshire 100-41 on Sunday.
  • Bob Huggins is third among active head coaches with 794 wins in 35 seasons.
  • The Mountaineers lead the country in turnover percentage defense, which they've done the previous two seasons.
  • West Virginia is 1-3 all-time against Illinois, and the last meeting resulted in a 90-88 Mountaineers win in Morgantown in 1967.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had nine points, three turnovers and two assists in 34 minutes against Winthrop. He has a 2.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and he will be challenged at both ends by West Virginia's guards.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams finished with 17 points and a team-high six assists to go along with five rebounds and only one turnover on Monday. He's scored in double figures in four of the first five games, and he's shooting 73.3 percent from the field.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill is second in the Big Ten with 20.6 points per game, and he hit four three-pointers in the first half on Monday. But he did not have a point in the final 25 minutes, while going 0-for-10 during the stretch.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke had a team-high 18 points against Winthrop with five rebounds in 30 minutes. He is one Illinois big man who has made a consistent impact on the glass with 7.4 rebounds per game.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan has had consecutive subpar perfromances, as he finished with just four points and three rebounds in 23 minutes on Monday. He's grabbed 12 boards in 112 minutes this season.

Bench

Leron Black (R-SO): Black made a positive contribution against Winthrop with 10 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes. He had eight points and all four boards after halftime.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands had six points on a pair of triples in 20 minutes on Monday. He didn't play the last five minutes of regulation, and he played less than one minute in overtime. He's shooting 42.4 percent from deep on the season.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had just two points and one rebound in 11 minutes against Winthrop. He racked up three fouls during that stint. The big man still hasn't found his groove yet this season.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan played 11 minutes on Monday, and he snatched a pair steals. He's played 23 minutes over the last two games without taking a shot.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams didn't take a shot or grab a rebound in the three minutes he played against Winthrop. He's made 60 percent of his shot attempts so far this season.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas did not see the floor on Monday night to the chagrin of Illini fans. He figures to be needed against the Mountaineers with their pressure and tempo.

West Virginia Starters

Jevon Carter (JR): Carter is a tough, quick point guard from Chicago, who is averaging 10.7 points, 4.3 assists and three steals per game this season. He was named to the Big 12 All-Defensive team last season. He has great hands and instincts at the defensive end, and he can score buckets as well.

Tarik Phillip (SR): Phillip can shoot the rock, as he connected on 40 percent of his three-point attempts last year. He also had 53 steals off the bench last season. You can't leave him open at the offensive end, and he will be another one that flusters you with ball pressure.

Esa Ahmad (SO): Ahmad is a 6-foot-8 wing with skill, versatility and athleticism. He can rebound, defend, handle the ball and make plays going to the basket. Ahmad was a top-60 get by Huggins in the 2015 class, and he's averaging 10.7 points and 5.3 boards per game this season.

Sagaba Konate (FR): More length and more athleticism. Konate is just a freshman, but he got the first start of his career on Sunday and he has played well. At 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, Konate has averaged seven points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game -- and he leads the Mountaineers with six blocks.

Nathan Adrian (SR): The Morgantown native leads the Mountaineers with 13.3 points and eight rebounds per game thus far. At 6-foot-9, Adrian is far from a traditional five. He is mobile, and West Virginia uses him in their full-court press. Offensively, he makes some shots inside and out, and he's a good passer.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Clean the defensive glass. The Illini have not rebounded nearly as well as they should with the size they have in their frontcourt. They were outrebounded by Winthrop on Monday night, despite the Eagles having one of the shorter rosters in the country. Rebounding becomes even more important in this game. West Virginia has averaged 43.3 rebounds per game, while Illinois has averaged 37.6 boards per game. West Virginia is 152-35 under Huggins when they outrebound their opponents. That paints a pretty clear picture. The Mountaineers have length. They have athleticism. But if the Illini are able to put in a good effort on the defensive boards, they can save themselves a lot of grief. For starters, it will limit second-chance opportunities. Also, the more they are able to grab misses, the less they have to worry about West Virginia setting up their full-court press -- which they go to after every made bucket.

2. Take care of the ball. West Virginia puts as much pressure on the ball as anyone in the country. They go all-out to turn you over and get the ball going the other way. But the Illini will have multiple ball-handlers on the court. They've been preparing for this by playing Tate and Abrams together. Both are veterans with the ability to see the floor. The Illini need to weave through the first and second levels of the press with good ball movement and precision. If they're able to do that, they will get open looks. West Virginia will play overly aggressive, and even in their blowout wins, they've rolled the dice and left guys wide open at the three-point line and with lanes to the bucket. Illinois has the firepower to make them pay if they can keep themselves from throwing it away.

3. Hill bounce-back outing. Great players have bad games. They miss shots. They turn it over. Hill did both of those things against Winthrop, and his inability to step up while the opposing team's best player shined was one of the reasons Illinois fell short. Hill has his chance to rebound from that, and this is a very important time to step up. There's a reason he's on the Naismith Award watch list. There's a reason he's a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. West Virginia is a better team. They have more athleticism. They're even deeper than Illinois. But no player on the court has more offensive talent than Hill. This is a game to see what Illinois is made of, and it starts with their star player.

Prediction

The Illini should play with a great amount of effort and intensity. An opponent like this brings that out of a team, and so should the fact that Illinois lost a game they should have won on Monday. Regardless of the frustration felt after the loss to Winthrop, this is still a talented team. They still have plenty of time to put quality wins on the resume. This is an opportunity to do so, and being tested already -- unlike the Mountaineers -- could be a good thing. But ultimately, West Virginia looks to be too much to handle with their pressure and athletic frontcourt.

No. 19 West Virginia 80, Illinois 68


Illini Inquirer Top Stories