Following a less than ideal trip to Maui, the Illinois Fighting Illini find themselves in a bit of a pickle as they travel to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Tuesday night. Illinois, losers of four of their last five games, will look to right the ship coming off a much needed win over Mississippi Valley State on Sunday night.
Notre Dame is led by junior guard TJ Gibbs and junior forward John Mooney. On the court these two combine for 25 points per game and Mooney leads the team, by a wide margin, in the rebounding game with 9.3 boards per game. Mooney has shown a prowess throughout the young season to be a nightmare to cover under the rim, so the Illini will need to find ways to correct their habit of leaving a lane to the rim open. If they don’t, Mooney will capitalize all game long.
As of Sunday evening, Notre Dame ranked 246th nationally in assists per game, yet were top fifty nationally in assist to turnover ratio. Those stats tell two stories. First, and foremost, Notre Dame plays disciplines and smart basketball. This is a team Illinois won’t be able to rely on the turnover margin to take a lead. Shots will need to fall in order to get a win on the road. The second story is that the Irish do not pass the ball for plays very well. To be in the bottom third of the country for a team as talented as they are should spell concern for fans of Mike Brey’ team.
Notre Dame’s turnover rate on the season is phenomenal. Sitting sixth in the country at 8.6 per game while the Illini sit tenth nationally with 19.6 turnovers forced per game means something will have to give Tuesday. Will the Irish have an undisciplined game and turn the ball over or will the havoc style of defense Brad Underwood likes to run win out on the day?
One player to watch out for may be Rex Pflueger. Pflueger is coming off the best game of his senior season, scoring 20 in their win over DePaul. Pflueger is a nightmare on defense but has shown an offensive side at times, although he is averaging a mere eight points in just under 30 minutes per game.
One of the biggest positives for the Illini coming in may be the three point shooting for Notre Dame, or lack thereof. Shooting 28.1% on the season (38 for 135) the Irish average only six made threes per game. Illinois May find it smart to leave a little space to force the three ball, something that has alluded Notre Dame this year, and play a bit tighter inside the line.
All in all this game appears to be a winnable matchup for Underwood and co. Can Illinois find a way to capitalize on an Irish team that isn’t at late season form? Possibly. Will they need to be at the top of their game to accomplish this feat? Absolutely. For the Illini and their fans, this matchup will prove to the world whether the Illini are, in fact, a legitimate tourney team or if fans should continue to trust the process.