Illinois coach Bruce Weber was quick to remind his players about Jackson State's quality right after the Vanderbilt victory.
"The first thing I reminded them is that Jackson State has the preseason player of the year in their conference in (Grant) Maxey. They played LSU already and gave them a heck of a game.
"Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt coach) said LSU doesn't have great depth, but they have a pretty good 5 or 6 guys. It was back and forth the whole game until the last few plays. So we know they're gonna be good. We reminded them of that, and we reminded them of the last time they came to our place. They were up 19-4 before we started to catch on."
Jackson State is coached by Tevester Anderson. Known both as the Tigers and Blue Bengals, Jackson State returns four starters from a team that almost made the NCAA tournament last year despite a difficult nonconference schedule. They are the favorites to win the SWAC conference.
Maxey was the SWAC Player Of The Year last season. The 6'-7", 180 pound junior averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while making 74 three point shots. He is joined in the Tigers' starting lineup by 6'-3", 185 pound senior Darrion Griffin, 6'-8", 200 pound senior Jeremy Caldwell and 6'-6", 180 pound junior Garrison Johnson, all back from last season. Freshman guard Rod Melvin, a 6'-1", 180 pounder, joins them.
Jackson State won't have much rest for Illinois as they lost at Texas A & M Friday night, 96-78. Maxey had a double-double with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Melvin added 14 points and Griffin scored 10. Griffin led them against LSU with 16 points, and sophomore De'Suan Dixon (6'-3", 175) added 10.
The Blue Bengals are small but quick and experienced. If Illinois has an advantage, it is depth. Jackson State relies on its upperclassmen to play most of the way, and they might tire in the second half.
But JSU is a dangerous opponent for a young Illini team that must learn how to take every game seriously and not let down or rest on its laurels after a satisfying win. And it is part of the upcoming Thanksgiving tournament, so a win is necessary for Illinois to reach upcoming goals.
"This is a part of South Padre, so if you want South Padre to mean something you have to win this game." Weber reminded.