There’s no place like home.
After four games played at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, the Fighting Illini finally return to the State Farm Center tonight after an eight-month $142 million renovation to the arena. Now 3-4, the Illini face the touch task of shutting down Notre Dame in the concluding matchup in the Big Ten/ACC challenge, which entering Wednesday stands at a 4-4 tie.
Here’s what to expect when these two teams take the floor tonight.
1. Jaylon Tate | PG
2. Kendrick Nunn | SG
3. Malcolm Hill | SG/SF
4. Leron Black | PF
5. Maverick Morgan | C
1. Demetrius Jackson | PG
2. Steve Vasturia | SG
3. Bonzie Colson | F
4. V.J. Beachem | F
5. Zach Auguste | C
1. How will true homecourt advantage effect the Illini?
Needless to say, Illinois struggled immensely while in Springfield, going 2-2 with losses to North Florida and Chattanooga. Even their slight win over Chicago State came on a Jalen Coleman-Lands three at the last second. But this raises the question, how much better is Illinois going to be at the State Farm Center?
One of the most significant renovations made was the expansion of the student section. The Orange Krush now surrounds the entire court and has been doubled from its previous size. On the surface, this means a louder and more intimate fan experience, but it should also be a major morale boost for this team. On the court, be looking for an increased defensive intensity, the John Groce calling card this team has lacked for much of the season thus far. For tonight, there will be a palpable energy in the building, so look for the Illini to take advantage of it, especially in the early minutes.
2. Big Man Woes
This week, Illinois was hit hard by the news that center Mike Thorne Jr. would be out for the foreseeable future with a torn meniscus he suffered in the game against Iowa State. This is a huge loss for the team as Thorne was third on the team in scoring with 13.4 PPG and first on the team in rebounds with 8.4 RPG. Adding to that mess, Illinois will be facing off against one of the best big men in the ACC, Zach Auguste.
The thinking is that junior Maverick Morgan will step in and fill the role at the five position. Morgan has been a pleasant surprise for the Illini thus far, averaging 6.4 RPG and 2.4 RPG. While this may not sound like much, Mav has shown big strides in his game, particularly in his ability to score in the paint. However defensively, he has remained subpar.
This will be an interesting matchup to watch. Does John Groce go with Morgan to seal off Auguste, or will he use a combo of Michael Finke and Leron Black to protect the post? Regardless, Illinois will have to find an answer to insure Auguste doesn’t go off for 14, 16, 18 points like he’s accustomed to.
Hooten: Illinois 75, Notre Dame 73
The Fighting Irish open as 2.5 point favorites on the road, but the line doesn't factor in the super-charged SFC that ND has to deal with. I expect Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to carry out their business, but look for an unsung hero to step up big. Finke? Coleman-Lands? Dare I say Alex Austin? It should be a fun one to watch. Check for a recap later tonight!