HQ prediction: UI 66, Boston U. 59
No. 2 Illinois at No. 7 Boston University,
6 p.m. Wednesday
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 11.0
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 6.4
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 15.5
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 4.3
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 7.0
FYI: Reserve Jon Ekey played in two NIT games at Illinois State, recording 15 points and five assists against Ole Miss, then nine points and 10 boards against Stanford.
OFF THE BENCH
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 7.3
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 8.6
F Maverick Morgan Fr. 6-10 1.6
Boston University (24-10)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Maurice Watson Jr. So. 5-10 13.5
G D.J. Irving Sr. 6-0 12.2
G John Papale So. 6-3 9.3
F Dom Morris Sr. 6-7 11.2
F Nathan Dieudonne So. 6-7 5.4
FYI: Papale shot 53 percent (43 of 81) from behind the three-point line in 18 Patriot League games to lead the conference. He’s a team-best 42.2 percent from three overall.
OFF THE BENCH
G Cedric Hankerson Fr. 6-5 6.0
F Travis Robinson Sr. 6-5 5.5
G/F Malik Thomas Jr. 6-7 5.9
Site: Agganis Arena (7,200), Boston
TV: ESPN2 — Sean McDonough (play-by-play) and Tim Welsh (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: First meeting.
FYI: A win for the Illini would give them 20 for the second consecutive season and the fifth time in the last six years.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
1. Remember what the Illini looked like last season, when they stormed out of the gate, winning the Maui Invitational by making a bunch of threes? You’ll see something similar Wednesday night from the Terriers. Boston University makes eight three-pointers a game on average, and the players aren’t shy about hoisting them up. Thirty-nine percent of their field goal attempts come from long range. “You look at their guys’ ability to shoot threes, when you shoot threes like that, it’s a great equalizer in the game and can make you very dangerous,” Illinois coach John Groce said. Add that to the fact that Watson is fourth in the nation in assists (6.9 per game) and the Terriers can be explosive. Before he had the chance to watch Watson on film, Groce compared the point guard to D.J. Cooper, the great lead guard he coached at Ohio. “(Watson) has spectacular vision and an ability to put balls on time on target.”
2. That being said, the Terriers haven’t seen many defenses quite as good as Illinois’, and the Illini rank 15th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency. The last time the Terriers faced a stout defense, American University, which ranks eighth in the country at 68.6 point per game, held them to 36 points in the Patriot League tournament championship game at Agganis Arena. The Illini are 24th, allowing 62.6 points. Through the ups and downs this season, the defense has remained relatively steady for the Illini. “We’ve played that pretty well, and it’s continued to get better and better and better,” Groce said.
3. If the Illini had faded down the stretch, losing five of their last seven games and missing the NCAA tournament in that fashion, the outlook entering the NIT would be different. But this group is surging after finishing the season strong. Its only two losses in the last month came at the hands of Big Ten champion Michigan, so the vibe is good entering the postseason tournament considered second best to the NCAA tournament. The Illini are excited to be here, and that could shine through on the floor. “We feel blessed and thankful to get an opportunity to play in the NIT, and I think our guys appreciate it even more probably because of where we were five to six weeks ago,” Groce said. “They appreciate it even more than normal. We’ve played good basketball. They like being around one another; we enjoy coaching them. That part’s been a lot of fun, and we want to keep this thing going as long as we can.”
Illinois 66, Boston University 59
Some have assumed Illinois is approaching the NIT games as a sort of exhibition, an opportunity to give the younger Illini who don’t command as many minutes through the grind of the Big Ten season a chance to play more minutes. Don’t talk like that around Groce. The Illini are scouting and preparing for this game and any subsequent games going forward like they did the first 33 games this season. The goal is to win and achieve the ultimate goal of the NIT, a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York for the Final Four. “Every game we go into, we have an expectation to put a game plan together to put us in a position to win. We never concede that; we’re not conceding anything,” Groce said. “We’re trying to be as competitive as possible and put ourselves in position to win basketball games.” (N-G prediction record: 25-8)