Who are they?
The University of Evansville is a Division I school located in Evansville, Ind., a few hours southeast of Champaign. The school boasts 2,500 students and the basketball team competes in the Missouri Valley Conference, along with the likes of Loyola-Chicago, Southern Illinois and Illinois State. Just like any good school you don’t know much about, they have an arbitrary story behind their nickname and mascot!
Evansville was at the bottom of the MVC last season, albeit in a very competitive conference. Illini fans should know very well how Dan Muller prepares his Redbirds down in Normal (who finished 10-8 in conference, good for third place) and everyone in the country knows about Porter Moser’s Loyola Ramblers. So suffice to say, Evansville had some stiff competition last year.
The Aces finished 17-15 overall and 7-11 in conference play.
Admittedly, Evansville did not play a great number of notable games during the 2017-18 campaign. In its only top-25 matchup, Evansville lost to Duke, 104-40, on Dec. 20. Yes, you read that correctly. They lost to Duke by 64 points.
Other games against tougher opponents included a 72-66 loss to Illinois State on Dec. 23 and 75-71 loss to the Redbirds on Feb. 3. They were also 0-2 against Loyola-Chicago, with a 66-59 loss on Dec. 30 and 76-66 loss on Feb. 18. Although it doesn’t appear great on the surface that they were 0-4 against the two truly notable teams in the MVC, keep in mind that these were all close games, and Loyola did make it to the Final Four — although, I disagree with the transitive property of sports, it is worth noting here that they did not get blown out in these games.
The only other game Illini fans might be interested in would be a 78-74 victory over Austin Peay in overtime on Dec. 16. You probably remember Illinois slid by Austin Peay on Dec. 6 last season, 64-57. Just worth noting.
Players to Watch
Illinois has lucked out that Evansville lost its leading scorer in Ryan Taylor, who used his final season of eligibility to transfer to Northwestern (so I guess we will see him later). Taylor averaged 21.3 (!) points per game. Dru Smith is a name you have probably heard — he too is gone, but opted to transfer to Mizzou (but he has to sit out..) instead of remaining with the Aces. He dropped over 13 points per game last season.
The leading returning scorer is junior K.J. Riley, who scored just under seven points per game last year. A 6-foot-5 guard, Riley would be a nice matchup for Ayo Dosunmu or Da’Monte Williams on the defensive end. Again, fortunately for Illinois, no other returner for Evansville averaged more than five points per contest.
Dainius Chatkevicius, a 6-foot-9 terrifying human, pulled down around five boards in each game last year. Otherwise, it’s not too notable of a roster. Besides Chatkevicius — a truly amazing name — only four other players are at least 6-foot-6. I’m afraid height might be another weakness for this Illini team to defend as it was last season, so this is a good matchup.
These are the games that Brad Underwood needs to take decisively if he wants to begin this season with confidence. Luckily, I believe Evansville is a good matchup. Aside from Chatkevicius (who is listed at 240, probably 10-20 pounds more than Giorgi truly weighs), I don’t think the Illini will have any glaring matchup problems on the defensive end. Deandre Williams is also listed at 6-foot-9, but the freshman is just a measly 190 pounds
This defense will still give up points, but the utter lack of returning scorers for the Aces is a huge benefit to the Illini. I think Ayo and Da’Monte, who are probably the best on-ball defenders, will have a few steals. Trent will light it up, as he has become used to doing, and I hope to see Andres Feliz get going from beyond the arc.
Hopefully another newcomer (I’m looking at you, Giorgi) can show some impact down low.
Illinois 86, Evansville 68