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PREVIEW: Illinois vs. VCU

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois's test vs. VCU in Miami on Saturday.

Illinois (5-3) vs.

VCU (6-1)

Date & Time: Dec. 3, 2 p.m. CT

Location: American Airlines Arena (Miami, Fla.)

TV: CBS Sports Network

Quick Hits

  • Illinois and VCU will meet for the first time in the programs' history.
  • The Illini will play their first game in American Airlines Arena, but Illinois played at the University of Miami two years ago in the ACC/B1G Challenge.
  • Illinois is coming off an 88-74 win vs. N.C. State on Tuesday, which snapped a three-game losing streak.
  • The Illini rank fourth in the Big Ten with 80.9 points per game, and they've scored at least 79 points in all five wins.
  • Darren Hertz, Illinois' Special Assistant to the head coach, is a Miami native.
  • VCU is coming off an 81-70 win over Princeton.
  • The Rams' only loss came at the Battle 4 Atlantis against Baylor.
  • VCU is 7-8 all-time against Big Ten programs.
  • VCU's last win against a Big Ten foe was in March 2011 against Purdue in the Sweet 16.

Projected Starters

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams was fantastic against N.C. State on Tuesday with 17 points and three steals. He hit three triples, as he regained his outside stroke that escaped him in Brooklyn last week.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands had 11 points in 25 minutes on Tuesday. He hit a trio of trey-balls on five attempts from deep. He has to be a shot-maker game in and game out.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill led Illinois with 22 points, nine rebounds and four assists against N.C. State. That's the kind of performance you expect from your best player in a big game. Illinois needs another one like that.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black has been outstanding in his first four games of this season. He had 15 points and eight boards on Tuesday in 26 minutes, including four offensive rebounds. His mid-range game has been on point, and his effort and toughness are invaluable.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had seven points in 16 minutes on Tuesday. He has been converting on his inside attempts at a very high percentage recently. But he had just one rebound against the Wolfpack. He has to be better in that area.

Bench

Maverick Morgan (SR): After a bad first half, Morgan finished with nine points, six rebounds and two blocks on Tuesday. That's the type of effort the Illini need to see from him defensively and on the glass. Groce will ride with the center that is playing the best.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas continues to build confidence and earn the trust of his coaches. He had four points and two steals in 16 minutes against N.C. State. He played nine minutes in the second half -- sparing Abrams. He will make mistakes, but he's the second best option at the position.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke did not play very well on Tuesday, as he finished with just three points (1-4) and one rebound in 15 minutes. He has been a streaky shooter from the outside, and he brings great value when he can stretch the defense. But he has to rebound and defend.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had two assists and one turnover in nine minutes against N.C. State. Groce did not use him in the second half.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams played only two minutes in the second half on Tuesday, and he was quickly called for an offensive foul after entering the game. Illini fans would like to see him play more, but he needs to be consistent. And you wonder about his confidence after riding the bench the last two games.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan played two minutes in the first half against N.C. State. He took one three and missed it.

VCU Starters

JeQuan Lewis (SR): Lewis is coming off a 23-point performance against Princeton, and he also posted 12 assists. He leads the way for the Rams with 15.7 points and 4.7 assists per game.

Jonathan Williams (JR): Williams is considered the second point guard in the Rams' starting lineup. He missed the last game with an illness. He is averaging 10.3 points and four assists per game.

Doug Brooks (SR): Brooks had five points and five rebounds against Princeton. He is averaging 5.4 points per game.

Jordan Burgess (R-SR): Burgess had 12 points (5-5) and seven boards in the last game. He is averaging 6.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.

Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed (SR): The 6-foot-9 big man started against Princeton, but he played just five minutes and racked up three fouls. He is averaging 6.7 points and 2.6 rebounds.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Improvement against pressure. Illinois was downright atrocious against the press in their blowout loss against West Virginia last week. And the Rams love to turn up the heat on defense as well. They will press you from end-to-end in spurts. They don't do it as much as the Mountaineers, but they may consider doing it as much as possible given Illinois' response last week. The Illini had 24 turnovers, which led to 34 points for West Virginia the other way. Illinois didn't appear to be well-prepared for it with guards running into the corner on the in-bound, which played right into traps. They chucked around careless passes as well. VCU forces turnovers. They average more than nine steals per game, so those are going to come. But Illinois has to limit them as much as possible.

2. Win the battle on the boards. VCU isn't a great rebounding team. In their seven games combined, they been +9 on the glass. They lost the battle on the boards against Baylor 34-to-26, and they gave up 13 offensive rebounds. That led to 21 second-chance points, which was a huge factor in the game. Illinois beat N.C. State on the glass, and they had 11 offensive boards for 19 second-chance points. In what will be a tight game on Saturday, every second-chance opportunity counts. The Illini have grabbed double-digit offensive rebounds in each of the last three games, and Black deserves a great deal of credit for that. Win the boards battle in this game and you'll put yourself in a good spot.

3. Play with Tuesday's level of focus and effort. Illinois' effort and intensity was off the charts on Tuesday in a must-win game. The margin of error remains small for them throughout the rest of the nonconference. This is a huge game, and a win would give them great momentum and another quality resume victory. Groce said his team had another notch of energy in the final 10 minutes against N.C. State, which allowed them to close. The Illini must show more of the same in this game.

Prediction

It's going to be a dog fight down near the beach. VCU's defense is not going to be easy to handle. They are No. 27 in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. But we all know Illinois has offensive weapons, as they showed on Tuesday by shooting 67.9 percent in the second half for 56 points. They just need to take care of ball. The Illini will be challenged at the other end of the floor too. Newton is a very talented point guard, and the Rams will take them off the dribble. But with Illinois' rotations starting to sort out and riding in with some confidence, they grab another key win for March.

Illinois 74, VCU 70


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