HQ men's hoops prediction: UI 74, Auburn 66
Illinois vs. Auburn, 2 p.m. Sunday
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 10.6
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 18.0
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 11.5
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 8.3
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 9.1
FYI: Egwu, who is third in the Big Ten averaging 2.5 blocks per game, has recorded at least two blocked shots in all but one game this season.
OFF THE BENCH
G Jaylon Tate Fr. 6-3 2.8
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 2.9
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 3.6
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G KT Harrell Jr. 6-4 17.7
G Chris Denson Sr. 6-2 21.8
G Tahj Shamsid-Deen Fr. 5-10 8.5
F Allen Payne Sr. 6-6 7.0
C Asauhn Dixon-Tatum Sr. 7-0 7.0
FYI: Denson leads the SEC in scoring, and the last time an Auburn player had as many points (131) through first six games was 2004-05, when Toney Douglas scored 132.
OFF THE BENCH
G Malcolm Canada Jr. 6-3 5.5
G Dion Wade Fr. 6-5 3.7
C Benas Griciunas Fr. 7-0 3.0
Site: Philips Arena (18,818), Atlanta.
TV: Fox Sports Midwest — Dave Baker (play-by-play) and Larry Conley (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 2-0. Last meeting: Illinois 81, Auburn 79, Dec. 29, 2012 (Chicago).
FYI: This is the first of four games to be played at neutral sites during the regular season for the Illini. They will play at Portland’s Moda Center next week against Oregon, St. Louis’ Scottrade Center against Missouri later this month and then at Chicago’s United Center against Illinois-Chicago.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
1. For the first time in the Illinois careers of most of the players making up the current roster, they have to find a way to bounce back after a loss. In terms of making strides in that area during practice, it’s been a mixed bag. Friday’s session, John Groce said, was great. “Practice was chippy; guys were competitive,” he said. Saturday’s morning session, before leaving for Atlanta, though, wasn’t as great. “We were just OK,” Groce said. “We’ve got to get to a level where we’re consistently good in everything we’re doing, and that will lead to more consistency and certainly our performance in games.”
2. Tracy Abrams had one of the better games of his career in last year’s win against Auburn at the United Center, scoring a career-high 27 points for the Illini. But after Tuesday’s loss, the point guard has been the target of criticism for his performance in the loss to Georgia Tech. That being said, his confidence hasn’t been shaken as a result. “I just try to not be too hard on myself. Everything’s going to go how it’s going to go, so I just try to be positive, good or bad,” Abrams said. “I’m (not) going to stress it. It’s going to come; I know it’s going to come. I’m just focused on going out there and playing. If my shot (isn’t) working, do something to go out and help the team.”
3. Though the season-opening win streak was snapped at seven games Tuesday night in Atlanta, it wasn’t all bad for the Illini. In building a 60-48 lead halfway through the second half, Groce felt his team might have played its best basketball of the young season. But the Illini played poorly to close the first half and watched the Yellow Jackets close the game on a 19-4 run during the final 10 minutes. If nothing else, it was a lesson to a still-evolving team that it takes 40 minutes to close out games. “I do think we took a step in the right direction because I thought we played really well the majority, the bulk of the game,” Groce said.
Prediction: Illinois 74, Auburn 66
As we saw in Tuesday’s loss at Georgia Tech, the margin for error is small with this Illinois team. Everyone must perform his job on every given play, otherwise repeats of the late-game collapse will be regular. Executing the little things at both ends of the court are paramount for a team without an array of offensive weapons to offset miscues in details. The opportunity to get back on the court is a welcomed one for this group. “We have to get it done by committee, and we have to have everybody hitting on all cylinders,” Groce said. “Each day that goes by, I think we’re getting closer and closer to that. I know the guys are looking forward to getting back out on the court and competing against Auburn.” (N-G prediction record: 7-1)