It was a very disappointing opening night to the 2015-16 season for Illinois this past Friday, as they dropped their first matchup of the year against North Florida while surrendering 93 points. It was the first time the team had lost their inaugural game since 1998. To add injury to insult, Illini point guard Jaylon Tate suffered an open right finger dislocation and immediately traveled back to Champaign to undergo surgery. It is unclear when he will be able to return to the court.
Important Note: The game will not be televised on Sunday afternoon. You will need to stream it on ESPN3. It is free and does not require a subscription.
Due to the ongoing renovations at the State Farm Center, this Illinois 'home game' will be played at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, IL; the Illini will be playing a total of four regular season games at this venue before returning to Champaign on December 2nd to battle Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jalen Coleman-Lands | FR
- Aaron Jordan | FR
- Malcolm Hill | JR
- Leron Black | SO
- Mike Thorne Jr. | SR
North Dakota State Bison:
- Paul Miller | SO
- Kory Brown | SR
- Carlin Dupree | JR
- A.J. Jacobson | SO
- Dexter Werner | JR
Illinois needs to get off the mat
A phrase head coach John Groce often uses, his team needs to "get up off the mat." After having one of the most injury-ridden offseason in recent memory, the Illini dropped their first game of the year in front of their home fans against a mid-major team. Not to take anything away from North Florida, they are a very talented team, but those are the types of games Big Ten teams who have March Madness aspirations need to win. Period.
The orange and blue will get a chance to redeem themselves, but it won't be a much easier matchup against the Bison. It remains unclear whether or not Leron Black will play; he is still progressing back to health following a surgical procedure he had several months ago. Groce said he was close to being ready to go against North Florida, so it will be interesting to see if he is in the Illini lineup on Sunday.
An 0-2 start to the 2015-16 regular season would be just about as horrible a way to open the year as you could imagine. Then consider that the next game is on the road at Providence, which boasts one of the best players in the nation in Kris Dunn, and you're facing an 0-3 record less than a week after the season tipped off. That can't happen if Illinois wants to make the tournament, regardless of the number of quality opponents they're playing early on. It's ridiculous to peg a game this early into the year as a must-win, but things won't be looking good for Groce and company if his team drops this one.
North Dakota State is looking for another NCAA tournament run
The Bison had a very different start to the season, coming back from a double-digit deficit on the road at UC Davis to prevail in overtime. NDSU scored the last eleven points of regulation and went on to outscore the Aggies by eight in the extra session. The one positive for Illinois is that the Bison had to travel from California very late Friday night all the way to Springfield. By the time Illinois was already back in their team hotel North Dakota's five-hour flight across three time zones was just getting started.
As for the team on the court, they are a veteran one and are expected by many to be tournament contenders again this season after making it to the second round last year. The leader of their team is AJ Jacobson, a first-team Summit League player, whom John Groce has compared to Malcolm Hill. Their other offensive weapon is Paul Miller, who led all scorers with 20 in their season-opener and expects to have a breakout sophomore campaign.
Illini fans won't want to hear this, but the Bison's style of play is very similar to North Florida's. They shoot lights out from beyond the arc and can play small and push the pace when they have to. Much like the Ospreys, they are not a team to be taken lightly.
Vallese: Illinois 82, North Dakota State 72
KenPom (0-1): Illinois 68, North Dakota State 66 (58% W)
I just can't see the Fighting Illini losing their first two games of the season. This will be close, but at some point the orange and blue just need to take the bull by the horns and assert their dominance, whether it be in the form of Mike Thorne or Malcolm Hill. Illinois by ten.