Illinois 82, Valparaiso 57
CHAMPAIGN - While the sample size is severely small, Jamall Walker looks pretty good as a head coach.
In his head coaching debut, Walker -- serving as interim coach three days after his former boss, John Groce, was dismissed -- had his team fired up to play and firing on all cylinders as the No. 2-seeded Illini (19-14) routed short-handed No. 7-seed Valparaiso (24-9) in front of 4,719 at the State Farm Center. Illinois advances to the second round of the N.I.T. to play either Utah or Boise State.
Illinois dominated throughout, trailing for just 47 seconds. The Illini claimed a 16-6 lead just five minutes into the game on the way to a 41-24 halftime lead. The Illini dominated the rebound battle 43-26. The Illini shot 48.4 percent from the field including 9-for-21 from three and had 18 assists on 30 field goals, while Valparaiso shot 37.5 percent, including 3-for-17 from three.
Malcolm Hill led Illinois with 25 points (7-12 FG, 4-7 three, 7-8 FT) and became just the fourth Illini to top 1,800 career points, joining Deon Thomas (2,129), Kiwane Garris (1,948) and Dee Brown (1,812). Hill (1,804) is now just eight points behind Brown for No. 3 on the career scoring list.
Leron Black (13 points and 11 rebounds) notched his third career double-double and second of the season. Tracy Abrams added nine points, eight rebounds and four assists, and Maverick Morgan finished with eight points and six rebounds.
The Crusaders, which were without Horizon League Player of the Year and Washington, Ill., native Alec Peters, were led by 25 points from Tevonn Walker. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, while the rest of the Crusaders shot 12-for-45 (26.7 percent).
Illinois is now 7-0 all-time against Valparaiso and 8-6 all-time in the N.I.T.
What it means
Illinois still wants to play. Given the abomination that happened two years ago at Alabama (a 79-58 loss in the first round of the NIT), it's nice to see this group still show pride and give it their all despite its coach getting fired three days prior. For the seniors, this is a showcase for their pro careers and for the young guys, this is a chance to improve and set a foundation for next season.
What went right
The Illini seniors showed up. Some seniors disappointed by missing their fourth straight NCAA Tournament could check out for the N.I.T. The Illini have seen it happen before. But these seniors showed some pride. Hill came out hunting on offense and scored eight points within the first 3:20 of the game. Morgan used his height advantage over Valpo. He was active on the glass and efficient on offense. Tracy Abrams led well and contributed in so many different areas. They're here. They might as well end their careers with
Black played his role. Too often, Black goes into "scorer" mode. He always needs to be in "rebound" mode. When he does that, he finds some easy buckets on putbacks, which he did frequently on Tuesday. He also hit a few open jumpers.
Defense. Illinois held Valpo to 0.84 points per possession. Valpo is bad without Peters, but it was a good effort.
It was nice to see Mike Thorne (7 points, 3-for-8 FG) on the court, snapping a streak of eight straight DNPs. He showed a lot of rust early and missed his first four shots (most of them forced). But he made his next three shots and had two big dunks.
Aaron Jordan scored his first points since a three-pointer on Jan. 7 at Indiana. The sophomore is 8-for-25 shooting this season.
Walk-on Clayton Jones made a three through a foul and made the ensuing FT for his first career points.
What went wrong
Illinois committed 15 turnovers . Freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas was a bit careless with the ball (four turnovers) and struggled against some full-court pressure defense, but he did settle in and dish out four assists.
Sophomore forward Michael Finke missed the game with a left foot injury. He was evaluated by doctors on Tuesday, is wearing a walking boot and is considered "day to day."
Illinois will host either Boise State (20-11), which beat Utah 73-66 on Tuesday night. The date and time of the game are TBA, but it will be at the State Farm Center. Illinois is 1-0 all-time against the Broncos. Seventh-year coach Leon Rice's team went 12-6 in the Mountain West Conference and ranks No. 95 in the KenPom ratings. Junior forward and All-MWC First Team selection Chandler Hutchison leads the Broncos in points (16.9) and rebounding (7.9). Sophomore guard Paris Austin averages 12.6 points.