The breakdown from beat writer Jeff Huth:
Illinois at Memphis, 2 p.m. Sunday
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Alexis Smith So. 5-9 8.4
G Ivory Crawford So. 5-10 15.5
G Amber Moore Jr. 5-11 14.0
F Kersten Magrum Jr. 6-1 5.0
C Karisma Penn Sr. 6-2 18.9
FYI: With seven field goals against Texas Tech, Penn moved past Tauja Catchings (1996-2000) into seventh place on the UI career field goals list with 570.
OFF THE BENCH
F Taylor Tuck So. 6-0 7.1
F McKenzie Piper Fr. 6-0 3.6
F Nia Oden So. 5-10 2.8
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Ariel Hearn Fr. 5-7 11.1
G Jaymie Jackson Fr. 5-10 3.0
G Jamila Ajanaku Sr. 6-1 1.0
F Pa’Sonna Hope Jr. 6-2 8.4
F Nicole Dickson Sr. 6-0 21.4
FYI: Already in the lineup, Hearn was shifted to point guard when starter Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir suffered a hand injury in the fourth game of the season.
OFF THE BENCH
C Ann Jones So. 6-3 8.0
F Asianna Fuqua-Bey Fr. 6-1 4.4
G Devin Mack Jr. 5-10 1.7
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM, Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Mike Koon (analyst)
Series: Illinois leads 2-1
FYI: Memphis is in its final academic year as a member of Conference USA before moving to the Big East Conference.
Jeff Huth’s storylines
Few teams since last season have been hit as hard by graduation and injuries as Memphis. The Tigers knew they were going to be losing a Conference USA Player of the Year (Jasmine Lee), a Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year (Ramses Lonlack) and a three-time all-conference selection (Brittany Carter) to graduation after the 2011-12 campaign. They couldn’t have foreseen already being without two starters this season. Freshman guard Mooriah Rowser was averaging 12 points and 4.7 rebounds before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Tigers’ third game. One game later, point guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir broke her right hand, an injury projected to sideline her until January. Little wonder Memphis is off to an erratic start after winning 25 of 33 games and advancing to the second round of the WNIT last season. A team projected to finish fifth in the 12-team C-USA might be hard-pressed to attain that level now.
The Illini enter their second true road game of the season Sunday with a 1-2 record away from the Assembly Hall. Certainly, that’s far too small a sample size from which to draw any conclusions. In fact, we won’t be able to get a true reading on what kind of a road team these Illini are until they wade into the Big Ten race. The conference road does not shape up as kind to Illinois; of its eight Big Ten away games, half are against teams ranked in the current Associated Press Top 25. Here’s where first-year Illini coach Matt Bollant offers major hope, if not this season than in the future: His Wisconsin-Green Bay teams were stunningly successful road warriors. In five seasons in Green Bay, Bollant’s Phoenix went 60-11 in true road games. Add in neutral-site results and Bollant had a 69-13 record away from home while at UWGB. “Our kids were tough and hard-nosed, and they didn’t let the atmosphere change them,” he said. “Going on the road, you have to be a little bit better, and you have to be pretty focused and play really hard to get a win on the road.”
Longtime Big Ten women’s basketball fans might remember Memphis’ current coach. Certainly, Melissa McFerrin experienced a memorable time while in the conference with a pair of Final Four qualifiers. In 1990, McFerrin joined Ohio State as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. By 1992, the Buckeyes had the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation. One year later, OSU finished second in the NCAA tournament. In 2002, McFerrin was hired by Minnesota as associate head coach. In two seasons with the Gophers, those teams went 50-15, advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 her first year and reached the Final Four in 2004. The well-traveled McFerrin — she’s coached at five schools as well as in the WNBA — was hired by Memphis in 2008 and has guided the Tigers to at least 20 wins in each of the last three seasons.
Prediction: Illinois 79, Memphis 67
If the Illini are still to be in the conversation for an NCAA at-large bid in late February, this is the kind of game they must win. Having already lost two starters to injury, Memphis is struggling to get its bearings. But even if the Tigers were at full strength, last season’s meeting between these teams leads you to believe Illinois should have the upper hand. Last November, the Illini beat a Memphis team that went on to win 25 games, 62-54. That UI team has most of its players back. The Tigers don’t. Memphis does, however, have the home court this time. We’ll learn how much that matters to a UI team looking for its first true road win. (N-G prediction record: 6-1)