Illinois (5-0) vs Baylor (5-0)
When: Friday, November 28th | 9:30pm CT
Where: Orleans Arena | Las Vegas, NV
Where to find FS1: Comcast - Channel 551 (SD) or Channel 946 (HD); AT&T U-verse - Channel 652 (SD) or Channel 1652 (HD); DirecTV - Channel 219; DISH - Channel 150
After rattling off an 88-62 win against the Indiana State Sycamores on Thanksgiving Day, the Fighting Illini will experience a quick turnaround and get ready to play the Baylor Bears in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational. Both teams enter this matchup with perfect records, 5-0, and this should be an excellent contest.
Illinois is averaging 95.6 points per game, good for third best in the entire country. They're also shooting nearly 50% from the field so far this year, another top 20 ranking. But Baylor will certainly be the stiffest test the Illini have faced this season due to their length and size. They are currently 38th in the country in rebounding with 42 of them per game and are coming off a dominant 71-47 performance against Memphis in the semifinals.
The Bears' only other win of note so far this season was a 69-65 victory on the road against South Carolina. They don't score as many points or go as up-tempo as the Illini do, but their defense, which ranks seventh in the nation in points allowed, is incredibly stout. This is a classic case of "something's got to give" between the Illinois offense and the Baylor defense.
Numbers to Know:
3rd, 6th, and 8th
That's Illinois' national rankings in turnover percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage respectively according to KenPom. Those are three terrific numbers, and it was encouraging to see the Illini still shooting well from deep yesterday. Malcolm Hill got to the free-throw line seven times against the Sycamores, by far the best free-throw numbers he's had as an Illini. This team is taking and making three's, reaching the foul line often, and not turning the ball over.
That's how many points Baylor is allowing on average per game. For a better look at how good their defense has been, here's the scoring outputs of their opponents so far this year: 39, 65, 45, 51, and 47. The Illini's lowest scoring output of the season thus far is 80, which is 15 points more than the highest scoring output the Bears have allowed all year.
In four of the Illini's first five games the team has had at least five players score double-figures. It happened again in the semifinals against Indiana State yesterday, and they'll go for five-out-of-six games against the Baylor Bears tonight.
Keys to the Game:
1. Staying Out of Foul Trouble
Illinois took care of business against Indiana State yesterday, but frontcourt play was a problem. The big men combined for 13 fouls (and a technical foul too) which allowed for the Sycamores to score inside the paint with ease. Now the good news is that this occurred against Indiana State, and not Baylor, because if Nnanna Egwu, Maverick Morgan, and Austin Colbert all get in early foul trouble again against the Bears, Illinois could be staring at a big deficit. Keeping the frontcourt intact will be key.
2. Dealing with the Baylor Defense
It's been well-documented how good the Bears' defense has been thus far in 2014, but they also like to throw several different zone-defense looks at opponents that has helped contribute to those low scoring outputs. If the Illini want to leave Las Vegas undefeated they'll have to be able to adjust to the 2-3 zone as well as the full-court pressure that Baylor will bring throughout the game.
3. The Health of Kenny Cherry
Baylor senior point guard Kenny Cherry, who is expected to be one of their best players this year, sat out last night's game against Memphis with plantar fasciitis. He's a huge part of the Bears' gameplan because he's a passer-scorer; he can hit three's but also dish out some pretty assists and score off the dribble. He's always a key to their success, and if he's not able to play again tonight Baylor's offensive schemes and flow may be greatly disrupted.
This game will certainly be lower-scoring than Illini fans are used to seeing this season. The Illini have yet to face a style of play like Baylor brings, but the Bears have yet to face an up-tempo, high-scoring style like Illinois brings to the table. I'll be honest, I'm not really sure what to expect from tonight's matchup, because something will have to give on both sides. I'll go with the Illini gutting out a close one.