PREVIEW: Illinois vs. N.C. State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup with N.C. State on Tuesday night.

Illinois (4-3) vs.

N.C. State (5-1)

Date & Time: Nov. 29, 8 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPNU

Quick Hits

  • Illinois has lost three consecutive nonconference games for the first time since 1993.
  • The Illini are coming off a 72-61 defeat against Florida State last Friday.
  • Illinois is 7-10 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and they're on a three-game losing streak in the challenge.
  • The Illini are 4-3 in home games during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
  • Illinois head coach John Groce got his first Division-I coaching position at N.C. State as an assistant under Herb Sendek.
  • N.C. State enters this game following a 79-77 win over Loyola-Chicago last Saturday.
  • The Wolfpack are 6-10 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and they've lost their last two in the challenge.
  • N.C. State hasn't won a road game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge since 1999 at Purdue.
  • Wolfpack freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. is projected as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (SR): Fans are ready for the freshman, but Groce will likely stick with Tate in the starting lineup given the defensive challenge of guarding Smith. Tate had no points, two assists and two turnovers in 14 minutes against Florida State.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams didn't play his best basketball out in Brooklyn last week. He was just 3-of-13 from the field and 1-of-6 from three with two assists and three turnovers. The Illini need him at his best in regards to leadership and production with another tough week ahead.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill broke out of a monster shooting slump late in the first half against Florida State. He had a 3-for-25 stretch prior to that, but he hit five of his last six shots against the Seminoles. Illinois' best player must put a bad week behind him and ride some offensive momentum into this game.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black was one of the few bright spots for the Illini during the Brooklyn trip. He had 21 points and 20 rebounds combined between the two games, including a 15-and-11 outing last Friday in 24 minutes. He deserves to start this game, and he matches up far better with N.C. State's four-man.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had four points and four rebounds in his first start of the season against Florida State. He had 12 points and seven boards against West Virginia, while going 6-of-6 from the field. Thorne has gone 13-of-15 from the field in his last four games.

Bench

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke had two points and six rebounds off the bench last Friday in 21 minutes. He has been streaky from distance this year, as he's made 4 of his last 14 attempts from deep. He is second on the team with 11 points per game.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas earned an extra helping of trust from the coaching staff during the holiday weekend. He played exceptionally well against Florida State, as he tallied 10 points, four assists and just one turnover in 18 minutes. Play him. More.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands had a rough go in Brooklyn. He totaled just four points, while going 1-of-13 from the field and 0-of-8 from three. When he's not hitting shots, he's not helping. Coleman-Lands has struggled defensively, as have others.

Maverick Morgan (SR): A hot start to the season has been quickly forgotten. Morgan is still averaging eight points per game and shooting higher than 61 percent from the field. But his rebounding numbers (2.4 per game) are ugly, and his defense hasn't exactly been prettier.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan played eight minutes and hit a three against Florida State. Groce said he thought he played well in his role, which is clearly 'three and D'. Jordan is shooting 45.5 percent from beyond the arc.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams did not see the floor against Florida State, and his mother let her frustrations be known on Twitter. Her son played 14 minutes against West Virginia, but he didn't score and he was 0-of-6 from the field. 'Flash' should play, but he needs to establish some consistency.

N.C. State Starters

Dennis Smith Jr. (FR): Remember Steve Francis? An absolute stud athlete at the point guard position who played one year in the ACC and got drafted No. 2 overall. Smith fits that prototype. He is averaging 19.8 points per game, which is second in the ACC. He's one of the most exciting players in college basketball, and extremely terrifying for the Illini on this night.

Torin Dorn (R-SO): The transfer guard from UNC-Charlotte attacks off the dribble at the offensive end. He is averaging 17.3 points per game at one heck of an efficient rate. Dorin is shooting 64.1 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from three. He can hurt you in multiple ways.

Terry Henderson (R-SR): Henderson is another bucket-getter in the N.C. State backcourt. The transfer from West Virginia is a lanky guard at 6-foot-5, who possesses some athleticism and a dangerous outside stroke. He's also averaging 17.3 points per game, and he hit seven threes in a shootout loss to Creighton.

Abdul Malik-Abu (JR): Abu is physical, athletic and a danger to the well-being of the rim. He is averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds this season. Abu has two double-doubles already this season, and his 18 career double-doubles are more than any active player in the ACC.

BeeJay Anya (Sr): Anya is a load at 6-foot-9, 320 pounds. You read that right. 320 POUNDS -- according to N.C. State's press notes for this game. He plays in spurts due to his conditioning. But he impacts the game at the defensive end, as he is N.C. State's all-time leader in blocked shots (218).

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Help defense on Smith. Do you recall the last time Illinois faced an explosive point guard at the State Farm Center? Yeah, Illini fans wish they didn't. Keon Johnson owned the court with 38 points on a bad foot, as Winthrop triumphed in overtime due to an Illinois collapse. Enter Mark Gottfried's Diaper Dandy point guard. Smith is quick, freakishly athletic and silky smooth with moves off the dribble. He can get a bucket from anywhere on the court. He has outstanding vision and facilitating prowess. Smith makes the Wolfpack go. N.C. State likes to use the ball-screen to free him up. That was a nightmare for the Illini against Winthrop with bigs having to 'help' on Johnson. And when Johnson was in NBA Jam mode, Groce didn't go with a double. Instead, he left Tate on an island with Johnson for most of the game. The Illini can't afford to leave shooters, but they might want more of an elaborate plan to slow down Smith. How about some channeling of their defensive effort/scheme on Kris Dunn last season?

2. Win the three-ball battle. The Illini have hit 62 trey-balls this year, which ranks in the top 20 nationally. That's a good stat, and shooting 38.8 percent from distance is pretty good too. Unfortunately, Illinois has given up the three-ball as well. Florida State went 9-of-15 from three last Friday. Winthrop hit 10 threes in their win in Champaign. N.C. State is going to pose a threat with their shooters. The Wolfpack hit 14 against Creighton, including seven from Henderson. He hit five in less than 11 minutes to start the game. N.C. State has other capable shooters as well. They love to spread the floor -- especially off of Smith's penetration -- and they will burn you. But they also give up the three. Loyola hit 10 against them in a close battle on Saturday. Creighton hit 13 in their 112-point explosion. The Wolfpack are not a good defensive team, and their film has shown them giving up plenty of uncontested attempts from three. The team who succeeds the most in this facet will be a great bet to win the game.

3. CLOSE. Groce said last week's slate -- which lit fire beneath his seat and put Illinois in an early hole -- allowed his staff and players to learn a lot. Fans don't want to hear about a team filled with veterans needing to learn. They should know plenty as the oldest team in the Big Ten. But one thing that even this experienced of a team has to learn is how to close out victories against good teams. It's simply something this group has not done collectively. Illinois held a 10-point lead with three minutes left against Winthrop. They were up two on Florida State with 12 minutes to play until giving up a 24-to-7 run put them to bed. One would imagine this being a tight game going into crunch time. Vegas has N.C. State as tight, two-point favorites. Get stops when you need them. Execute offensively down the stretch. The results won't change until Illinois' late-game habits do. And there's no better time to start learning how to close games out.

Prediction

At Monday's press conference, Groce said it would be "a waste of time" to look big-picture in terms of the current state of urgency for getting quality wins. Well, we'll do it for him. The Illini went 0-for-3 on potentially good RPI wins last week. They have three chances left in the nonconference, and two of them are this week. It's a long season. But both apathy and action-ready frustration are spreading quickly across the fan base. And there are only so many chances for resume-building victories. Illinois needs this one. Groce needs this one. N.C. State is very talented, but they lack depth, they aren't good defensively, they have an inexperienced backcourt and they're without their five-star center until mid-December. Now is the time to get them, and you'll look better for it in March. Some way. Somehow. Just win, baby.

Illinois 76, N.C. State 72


Illini Inquirer Top Stories