PREVIEW: Illinois vs. BYU

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with BYU on Saturday night in Chicago.

Illinois (8-3) vs.

BYU (7-3)

Date & Time: Dec. 17, 8:30 p.m. CT

Location: United Center (Chicago, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois is riding a four-game winning streak after a 92-73 win against Central Michigan last Saturday.
  • The Illini are 36-14 all-time at the United Center, but they are just 4-5 in their last nine regular season games there.
  • Illinois is 3-2 all-time against BYU, and the Cougars won the last matchup 80-75 in 1980.
  • The Illini defeated No. 15 BYU and Danny Ainge to open up the season in 1979.
  • BYU is coming off a 79-71 win against Colorado last Saturday.
  • BYU is averaging 85.8 points per game, which is 23rd in the country.
  • The Cougars have three losses -- Valparaiso, USC and Utah Valley -- giving up 90-plus in each game.

Projected Starters

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams is coming off a career performance with 31 points and seven treys against Central Michigan. He is averaging 16 points per game during the winning streak, while shooting 72.2 percent from deep. The Illini need more fantastic play.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands had five points on just one made shot last Saturday, but he played 26 minutes and was solid defensively. His three-point shooting has taken a dip to start this season – shooting 35 percent from deep.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill had 10 points, five rebounds and three assists against Central Michigan following a 32-point outing against IUPUI. He is second in the Big Ten with 18.9 points per game.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black posted a career-high 21 points last Saturday, as he continues to be Mr. Consistency for the Illini. He’s had at least 15 points in each of the last five games.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had eight points and a season-high 11 rebounds against Central Michigan. The big man has looked more comfortable and confident on the floor recently.

Bench

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had five assists, four rebounds and two turnovers in 20 minutes the last time out. He’s played 49 minutes combined over the last three games.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan had 11 points and seven rebounds in an encouraging performance against Central Michigan. He had 12 rebounds combined in the previous four games.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams totaled two points and five rebounds in 17 minutes last Saturday. He’s played 25 minutes combined in the last two games after no-shows in two of the previous three. Consistent defense and rebounding will go hand in hand with consistent minutes for Williams.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke made a good effort on the glass with seven rebounds in 15 minutes against Central Michigan, including four on the offensive glass. But he continues to be in a funk offensively, as he’s hit just two of his last 16 shots – including one of 11 from three.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas did not see the floor against Central Michigan. He played 16 productive minutes against N.C. State, but he’s played just 16 minutes combined in the three games since then.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan also did not play last Saturday. His last made field goal came against Florida State.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols is eligible to play his first collegiate game after sitting out the first semester.

BYU Starters

L.J. Rose (GR): Rose does a little bit of everything for BYU with 6.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The grad transfer point guard from Houston is the only upperclassman in the starting lineup for the Cougars.

Nick Emery (SO): Emery is averaging 16 points per game, and he is coming off a 22-point outing against Colorado. The lefty guard has a green light on offense and he's not afraid to use it. He's taken at least 15 shot attempts in five of the last six games.

TJ Haws (FR): Haws is averaging 12.2 points per game this season, while shooting 39.6 percent from three. He hit four threes in a 16-point outing against Colorado. He is a clear candidate for Freshman of the Year in the West Coast Conference.

Yoeli Childs (FR): Childs brings some athleticism and length to the four-spot at 6-foot-8. He is averaging 6.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and he posted his first career double-double against Colorado.

Eric Mika (SO): Mika is one of the most productive big men in the country with 21 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and he likely has an NBA future. The 6-foot-10 center is skilled, runs the floor, finishes around the basket, draws fouls and hits the glass.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Have an answer inside. The Illini big men played one of their better collective games against Central Michigan, but the task will be amplified this Saturday against BYU. The Cougars have a strong big man trio between Mika, Childs, and senior Kyle Davis off the bench. They run the floor, they can score inside and they test you on the backboard. As a team, BYU has the most rebounds per game in the country (46.5) -- outrebounding their opponents by nearly nine per game. Illinois has to get a collective effort there, and they must have an effective plan for Mika defensively. The Illini will have a heck of a time trying to guard him one-on-one with Morgan, Thorne or Finke. Mika can back you down, hit the face-up jumper, and he leads the country in fouls drawn per game. Zone could be the right way to go by putting more bodies around the paint. That could give way to good looks from three, but the Illini may risk that over getting beat inside. Help defense will be at a premium, and mixing in some post traps might be a good idea. John Groce will need some kind of answer on the interior.

2. Win the perimeter game. Abrams has been unbelievable with his outside stroke, and his overall game has been paramount in Illinois’ response following their three-game slide. The Illini need more of the same to keep it rolling throughout the end of nonconference play. BYU has guards who are more than capable of scoring. They will get their clips up from three, and they’ll try to challenge the Illini off the bounce. Illinois backcourt simply needs to make more plays. Hill and Abrams will be looked to the most, but Coleman-Lands must show up. Other contributions off the bench would be a bonus. Illinois’ perimeter defense will need to take another step in the right direction as well. The Illini can’t afford to let Emery and Haws get in a rhythm. There are shots that Illinois left open against Central Michigan that could be dangerous against this team. Emery hasn’t shot it extremely consistently this year, but he is still a career 37-percent three-point shooter and he’s coming off one of his best games of the season.

3. Get significant bench production. Finke and Morgan are major keys for the Illini given the challenge down low. Can they hang in this game? Can they be relied on if Black or Thorne gets in foul trouble? Backup point guard play is always under a microscope. Look for Tate to get a big chunk of the minutes given the tempo, and the Illini need him to defend and operate successfully at the other end in a high-pace game. Lucas may get a small-window opportunity. What does he do with it? Can Williams be reliable defensively and on the glass? What about Nichols? The Illini need their second unit to rise to the occasion.

Prediction

There are aspects of this one that remind you of a tournament game: Late start, neutral floor and two pretty closely-matched teams. This is a game that Illinois needs to win to be playing in a real tournament game in March. Chicago is supposed to be Illinois’ home away from home, and while they haven't played like it in their recent string of games at the United Center, the Illini will have the fanfare advantage. BYU is going to score it, but they've had problems giving up points. Illinois finds a way to win with better guard play and doing enough inside to avoid defeat.

Illinois 85, BYU 80


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