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Game Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Providence Friars

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The Fighting Illini go on the road in hopes of getting a big non-conference win at Providence in the Gavitt Tipoff Games

John Groce signals for the one player he'd like to have back right now: Kendrick Nunn
John Groce signals for the one player he'd like to have back right now: Kendrick Nunn
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
6:00 pm CT

Illinois Fighting Illini (1-1) vs. Providence Friars (1-0)

Location: Dunkin' Donuts Center | Providence, RI
Television/Stream: FS1 | FoxSportsGo
Opposing SB Nation SiteBig East Coast Bias

RPI Ranking: Providence: N/A | Illinois: N/A
KenPom Ranking: Providence: 57 | Illinois: 72

Things are about to get tougher for John Groce and Illinois. The Fighting Illini visit the Providence Friars Wednesday night as a part of the Gavitt Tip-Off Games between the Big Ten and Big East. They will face the tough task of stopping preseason All-American Kris Dunn, who many believe can be the best player in the nation. Illinois will need to ride the momentum from Sunday's win over North Dakota State into what could be a potential resume-boosting win for this team.

Projected Starters

Illinois Fighting Illini:

  1. Khalid Lewis | SR
  2. Aaron Jordan | FR
  3. Malcolm Hill | JR
  4. Leron Black | SO
  5. Mike Thorne | SR

Providence Friars:

  1. Kris Dunn | JR
  2. Ryan Fazekas | FR
  3. Junior Lomomba | JR
  4. Rodney Bullock | SO
  5. Ben Bentil | SO

Kris Dunn is one of the best players in the nation

Many expected Dunn to be a Wooden Award candidate from day one this season, and as evidenced by his performance against Harvard this past week, the praise is within reason. In the team's 76-64 win over the Crimson, Dunn dropped a career-high 32 points and eight steals, while also recording six rebounds and five assists. This won him Big East Player of the Week, a testament that the junior is already living up to his lottery pick hype.

Dunn poses a nearly-unstoppable threat to this Illini defense. Keep in mind, Illinois has already struggled keeping mid-major guards in check, allowing North Florida's Dallas Moore and Beau Beech to score 26 and 25 points, as well as giving up 19 to NDSU's Paul Miller. Now they will face a legitimate top-tier player who has the potential to put up 30-plus.

Groce will likely have Dunn double-teamed the whole game, given no healthy defender is quick enough to keep up with him. If Kendrick Nunn were healthy, he would likely get the assignment, but it looks as if Khalid Lewis and Aaron Jordan will have to do the job. While Jalen Coleman-Lands is the better offensive threat at the two position, Jordan is a more talented and adjusted defender at this point in the season. After all, JCL is just a couple weeks removed from a long-term leg injury.

Can Mike Thorne take advantage of the Friars' frontcourt?

Thorne has been tremendous in his first two games with the Illini, averaging 23.0 PPG and 11.0 RPG. He has been able to exploit smaller frountcourts with his massive 6-11 frame, and will look to continue his barrage tonight against a Friars' squad that isn't that big.

Starting forwards Rodney Bullock and Ben Bentil are 6-8 and 6-9, respectively, and are outweighed by Thorne a good forty pounds. While Bullock was very effective against Harvard (20 points, 6 rebounds), he will have more difficulty posting up on the Illinois big man.

Look for the Fighting Illini to exploit this mismatch early and often. It could lead to easy interior buckets, of which Illinois needs many. However, be wary if Providence starts fouling Thorne intentionally under the hoop. Despite drawing 8.5 free throws per contest, Thorne is hitting just over 47% of them. In a game that potentially will come down to the wire, this could be his Achilles heel.

Prediction:

Hooten: Providence 82, Illinois 75

KenPom (1-1): Providence 71, Illinois 67 (35% W)

Kris Dunn is just too good, and the Illini have no answer. While this would be a huge win for Illinois, I don't see a team that is yet-poised enough to win a tough non-conference game on the road. That doesn't mean it won't be close, though.