PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Valparaiso

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with Valpo in the NIT first round.

No. 2 Illinois (18-14) vs.

No. 7 Valparaiso (24-8)

Date & Time: March 14, 6:15 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPN2

Quick Hits

  • Illinois will make its seventh NIT appearance in program history, and the third in four years.
  • The Illini are 8-6 all-time in NIT games.
  • Illinois will host an NIT game for the first time since 2010.
  • Interim head coach Jamall Walker will lead the Illini after John Groce was fired on Saturday.
  • The Illini are coming off a 75-55 loss against Michigan last Thursday at the Big Ten tournament.
  • Illinois is 6-0 all-time against Valparaiso, and they won the last matchup 64-52 in Nov. 2012.
  • Valpo went 14-4 in the Horizon League, which tied for first in the league standings.
  • The Crusaders were upset by Milwaukee (11-24) in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
  • Valpo is without Horizon League Player of the Year Alec Peters, who is out for the season with a stress fracture in his leg.
  • Peters led Valpo with 23 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this season.
  • Crusaders head coach Matt Lottich is in his first season after replacing Bryce Drew.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had four points, three assists and three turnovers in 27 minutes against Michigan in Washington, D.C. The freshman point guard got drastically outplayed by Derrick Walton Jr., and he wasn't very good at Rutgers in the previous game. But when he plays well, the Illini typically do the same.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams had one of his best games of the season on Thursday with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting in 31 minutes against the Wolverines. The sixth-year guard was the sole bright spot for Illinois in that contest after missing a crucial layup at Rutgers in the regular season finale.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill had an awful performance against Michigan with four points and three turnovers, while going 1-of-8 from the field. That was the first time that he scored in single digits since Thanksgiving against West Virginia. Hill limped around later in the game, but he said he is good to go for Tuesday.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black finished with no points and four rebounds in 10 minutes on Thursday. After scoring 15 points against Michigan State, Black has posted two points combined in the past two games. The inconsistency of the former top-50 recruit has been concerning.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan was terrible at the Big Ten tournament with five turnovers in 27 minutes. The senior big man looked out of it, while the Wolverines swarmed around him and by him. Morgan's performance was a stark contrast from his outing of 14 points and seven rebounds on Senior Night.

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands played 29 minutes off the bench with seven points and two turnovers against Michigan. He's gone 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) from three over the last four games.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke had eight points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes on Thursday. He may have been the only Illini player other than Abrams who belonged on the floor against Michigan. He went 2-of-2 from deep after a 2-of-9 stretch in the three previous games.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols posted three points, one rebound and a block in 12 minutes against the Wolverines. He went 1-of-3 from beyond the arc. Nichols played only five minutes in the game before at Rutgers. This is the type of player this tournament benefits.

D.J. Williams (SO): There was a D.J. Williams sighting on Thursday! The first time in 12 games. Williams has played in two games since his leave of absence in January. Both appearances were against Michigan for seven minutes combined. He hit a turnaround jumper on Thursday as part of his four-minute stint.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan did not see action at the Big Ten tournament. He has sat out of six of the last eight games. He played nine minutes in Coleman-Lands' absence against Northwestern on Feb. 21. Jordan has gone 7-of-24 from the field this season.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate hasn't played since Feb. 18 at Iowa. He only managed to post two turnovers and two fouls in that game. He has sat out of the last five contests.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has been sidelined for eight consecutive games. His last appearance was on Feb. 4 against Minnesota, as he had five points, three fouls and two turnovers in 10 minutes. 

Valpo Starters

Lexus Williams (JR): Williams is averaging 5.3 points and two assists per game this season, while shooting 41.9 percent from the field. The Chicago native had 19 points and five steals in a win at Wright State late last month, but he was scoreless with three turnovers the last time out against Milwaukee.

Tevonn Walker (JR): Walker is a capable scorer with 18 double-digit scoring outings this year. He had a season-high 25 points at Northern Kentucky in the regular season finale, while hitting four threes and going 7-of-9 from the line. But Walker was just 4-of-14 from the field against Milwaukee.

John Kiser (FR): The 6-foot-5 freshman made the first start of his career against Milwaukee in the Horizon League tournament. Kiser finished with eight points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes, while going 3-of-4 from the field.

Shane Hammink (SR): Hammink is Valpo's active leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, while also averaging 4.1 points and 2.5 assists. He has scored at least 20 points in 10 games this season, including 23 points in a win against BYU in November. Hammink has skill and bounce, and at 6-foot-7, he can be used as a matchup problem at the four.

Jaume Sorolla (FR): Sorolla is averaging 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-11 freshman also leads the team with 30 blocked shots on the year. He had three points, seven rebounds and a block against Milwaukee in Valpo's last game.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Who wants to be here? Playing in the NIT is -- as Illini nation likes to say -- 'not ideal'. Illinois had aspirations of playing in the NCAA tournament. Hill said he didn't want to be remembered as that player who never made it to the dance. Groce said he thought his team had a chance to do something "special". But there was nothing special about this season. Groce got fired. Hill will never experience the NCAA tournament. And Illinois is playing in the NIT with an interim head coach. Will they play inspired like Alabama did against them with an interim coach in the NIT opener in 2015? Or will they play like Illinois did that year -- disinterested and ready to pack it in? The result was a 79-58 win for the Tide. Walker said on Monday that the key in the NIT is finding out who wants to play. On the other side, Valpo clearly wanted to play once they got to the NIT last season. They went all the way to the championship game in New York but lost to George Washington. Maybe that will provide some motivation. But after tying for the best record in the league and losing their best player, the Crusaders flopped against a very bad Milwaukee team last week. Which squad is more interested in playing more basketball at this time of year?

2. What does Walker show? Walker is a huge deal for this program. Not just because he will be manning the sideline during the NIT, but in regards to the future with his connection to five-star signee Jeremiah Tilmon, Mr. Basketball favorite Mark Smith and others across the landscape. But Josh Whitman made it clear on Saturday that he would leave it up to the new coach to decide whether he wants to keep Walker or anyone else on the staff. So there isn't exactly a guarantee. But it's not crazy to think that this can be an audition in some form for Walker. He will get to call the shots. He will be seen on national television with this team. Regardless of what Illinois does in this tournament, Walker still has recruiting as a major bargaining chip when that new coach is named. But it will be interesting to see what he can bring to the table in this temporary role.

3. Fan interest. On Saturday, Whitman described the electric atmosphere that used to encompass the State Farm Center. The kind when you could barely get a ticket. Actually, it was still the Assembly Hall when that description fit the building. It is Whitman's mission to have that return. That won't happen in the NIT. How much fan interest will there be, though? Illini fans can come out and support seniors like Hill and Abrams. Hill is 33 points away from tying Dee Brown for third on the program's all-time scoring list. They might want to get a look at Walker running the show. And it helps Illinois that they won't be competing against a full slate of Big Dance basketball on Tuesday night. The Illini had more than 8,500 recorded attendees the last time they hosted an NIT game, which was the NIT quarterfinals against Dayton. You can probably bet on there being less than that for this game. But Whitman unquestionably got the fan base to buy into him even more with his move and message on Saturday. And there is a buzz about Illinois basketball right now, and some might come out just to show an appreciation for his vision.

Prediction

The Illini came out flat on Thursday, as they got smacked around by Michigan. It's been a tough season for this group. Some guys may be ready for it to be over. Some may want to come and play for something. We will find that out. Valpo would be a dangerous matchup for Illinois if they had Peters at their disposal. But without him, they should be fairly outmatched. Vegas has the Illini as 8.5-point favorites as of Monday night. They will move on and face much more of a challenge in the next round.

Illinois 75, Valparaiso 65


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