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Miami Basketball Opponent Preview: Illinois with The Champaign Room

UM faces the Fighting Illini tomorrow night at 9 PM (ESPN2) as part of the ACC/B1G Challenge. We caught up with Jim Vainisi of The Champaign Room, SB Nation's University of Illinois site, and talked the game, the last time these two teams played, the challenge itself, and more.

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The last time these two teams met., Miami advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 63-59 win over the Illini in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

That led to this raucous scene:

Well a lot has changed since then.

Still, both teams are coming in on a roll and undefeated so far this season, so this is a big game for SOS, RPI, and all that good stuff.

I don't expect any Ali's shuffles should the 'Canes win though.

Here is our full Q&A with Jim in preparation for the big game tomorrow:

SOTU: Illinois is off to a great start at 6-0, including wins over Indiana State and Baylor.  What has been the key to their early success?  In your opinion, is this an NCAA Tournament team?

TCR: Shooting ability and depth, especially in the backcourt, have been extremely important for the Illini so far. Transfers Ahmad Starks (PG, Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (SG, Seton Hall) were forced to sit out last season, but they’ve given this team a completely different dimension so far on offense. When you combine them with Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, and even Nnanna Egwu you have a 5-6 guys who can make a shot from anywhere on the floor. On the year, Illinois is shooting 43.4% from 3-point range (16th) and their effective field goal percentage is 55.9 (30th).

In my opinion, this is definitely a tournament team. You won’t find many members of the national media giving the Illini praise just yet, but the fans of the program realize just how good this team could be. Look for them to finish the year in top 5-6 of the Big Ten in addition to a respectable tournament seed.

SOTU: At 6'4 230 and leading the team with over 17 points and 7 boards a game, Rayvonte Rice looks more linebacker than 2 guard.  How would you describe his game and how good is he?

TCR: In a word—powerful. Rayvonte Rice was pretty out of shape when he transferred to Illinois from Drake, but he has since become the poster child of the John Groce strength and conditioning program. The scary thing about Rice is that he’s been more efficient this year. He scored a lot of points last year, but he took so many shots since he was the team’s only offense. This year, opposing teams aren’t able to load up the lane because they have to respect the shooters at the 3-point arch; he’s had a lot more space to operate. He’s a grown man out on the court and there isn’t much opposing players can do to stop him.

It’s just fun to watch Rice play. He’s an extremely underrated defender, he’s a vicious rebounder, and he just makes plays from everywhere on the court. I think he has an outside shot at First Team All-B1G (depending on how the team finishes), but I expect him to make the 2nd or 3rd team.

SOTU: Which players on the Illini might UM fans not have heard of, that are making contributions?

TCR: The "big names" that probably come to mind for Miami fans are Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu, but Illinois is one of the deepest teams in the Big Ten and there are scoring threats everywhere on the court as six players are averaging at least 9.0PPG. Sophomore PF Malcolm Hill may be the team’s most important player outside of Rice; he’s a complete mismatch on the offensive end. Out of all the returning freshman, Hill was the most likely to make the "sophomore leap" and he’s certainly done so thus far. He’s averaging 14.2PPG, 6.3RPG, and 1.3APG on the season. The sky is the limit for him and I fully expect him to be an All-B1G caliber player as an upper classmen.

Another player that impacts the game in a variety of ways is sophomore SG Kendrick Nunn. Nunn had a minor knee procedure during the offseason and there were some questions about his health early on, but it appears that he’s at or near 100% again. The fan-favorite may be Illinois’ best 3-point shooter—he’s absolutely deadly from the corners. He’s listed at 6’3, but his wingspan makes him an above average-excellent defender on the perimeter.

Finally, freshman PF Leron Black has played exceptionally well so far. Just a little background here; the Memphis native was a consensus top-50 recruit that had originally committed to Baylor. He was a top-20 prospect at that time, but an ankle injury caused him to miss a crucial evaluation period and his ranking suffered. Anyway, Black just gives a disgusting amount of effort each time he takes the floor—so much so that his teammates have given him the nickname, "Savage." He’s currently averaging 9.0PPG and 3.8RPG in about 16.5 min per game. The rebounding numbers are a bit deceiving because he’s quickly becoming one of the best on the team in that aspect.

SOTU: Much like UM's Jim Larranaga,  UI Coach John Groce employs a lot of 4 guard looks.  Is this because the Illini lack depth up front, or are they just guard heavy? What pace would Groce like to see this game played at?

TCR: This is a good question; I think it’s a combination of both of those factors as well as Groce trying to give Malcolm Hill as much playing time as possible. Hill came to Champaign as primarily a 3 or 2 last year, but he was forced to take on a new role due to the makeup of the roster. He transformed his body and he’s now about 6’6/230; he’s still slightly undersized in terms of guarding the opposing 4, but he’s extremely skilled on the offensive end for the position. Illinois will start the game in their four-guard lineup with Starks/Cosby/Rice/Hill/Egwu, but it transitions to something more traditional when Leron Black subs in for Hill.

As for tempo, Groce wants to go as fast as possible. According to KenPom, Illinois is currently 35th in adjusted tempo as they’re averaging 70.5 possessions per game; average possession length is 23rd at 15.4 seconds. The surprising part about this is that they’re not turning the ball over much. In fact, Illinois’ turnover percentage of 12.3% is 3rd in the country. Starks and backup PG Jaylon Tate have done a great job of playing fast, yet under control. One other thing to note here; Tate tends to push the ball more than Starks so keep an eye out for that when he checks into the game.

SOTU: Which players and/or match-ups with Miami concern you if any?

TCR: I’m interested to see how Groce attacks Rodriguez on defense. This is where not having Tracy Abrams hurts because he’s a fantastic defender (the senior PG is out for the year with a torn ACL). Ahmad Starks isn’t a bad defender, but he just doesn’t bring the same attitude on the defensive end. My guess is that Starks and Aaron Cosby will end up sharing the duties for most of the night. That leaves Rayvonte Rice and Kendrick Nunn guarding McClellan.

The other matchup I’ll be keeping any eye on is Nanna Egwu vs Tonye Jekiri. Given the guard depth on each side, this game could very well come down to front court production. The Illinois offense is most effective when Egwu gets involved—and that can be via pick-and-roll, jump shots, or passing out of the post. Egwu plays a majority of the minutes, but if (when) he gets in foul trouble, one of Colbert or Morgan will need to step up and provide some quality minutes.

SOTU: The last time these two teams met, the 'Canes defeated Illinois in the round of 32 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.  What do you remember most about that contest?

TCR: Man, that game was absolutely heartbreaking. That was team clicking towards the end of the year and, in my opinion, we could’ve competed against anyone in the country. There are three things I will never forget from that game:
  1. Shake Larkin’s step-back three in the right corner. That was an absolute dagger. How did that shot go in? Do the Basketball gods hate us that much?
  2. The blown out-of-bounds call on our last possession. The ball went off of the Hurricanes under the basket and the officials weren’t able to review the play. I’m not saying Illinois would’ve scored, but Groce knows how to draw up a play—just ask Tom Crean and Indiana. That situation led to a rule change and officials are now able to review similar calls at the end of games.
  3. Groce’s postgame locker room speech. Picking up D.J. Richardson from the floor and consoling him, thanking the seniors for laying the foundation during his first year on the job, looking ahead to future—very emotional/inspiring stuff from him that day.

SOTU: Last but not least, how do you see this game playing out? Who wins and why?   And how do you see the rest of the ACC/B1G Challenge playing out?

TCR: I have to be honest with you, I thought this would be an easy W when the matchups were announced this Summer. I had no idea the Hurricanes would be this good and the game could realistically go either way. The two teams each have great guard play so I’m hesitant to give either side an edge in that aspect. I do however think that Illinois’ front court of Hill, Black, Egwu, and Austin Colbert/Maverick Morgan is marginally better; they just need to stay out of foul trouble. I think the Illini will find a way to win in the end despite this being the team's first "true road game." Illinois 75, Miami 68.

Disclaimer: I am by no means confident in my prediction.

Here’s what I have for the entire B1G/ACC challenge:

Illinois over Miami - Our game could very well decide the challenge
FSU over Nebraska - Nebraska can’t win outside of Lincoln.
Clemson over Rutgers - I think Clemson is less bad than Rutgers.
Michigan over Syracuse - Fun fact: John Groce got a commitment from Caris LeVert at Ohio; didn’t bring him along to Illinois.
Ohio State over Louisville - This one is tough. I haven’t seen Louisville yet, but I’m very impressed with D’Angelo Russell and the Buckeyes so far.
Pitt over Indiana - Indiana literally doesn’t have a front court.
Purdue over NC State - Purdue has been the surprise of the conference so far; look out for 7’ C Isaac Haas behind Hammons.
Minnesota over Wake - Nothing special here, Minnesota is the better team.
Duke over Wisconsin - I’m very high on Wisconsin, but Duke is just so, so talented.
Michigan State over Notre Dame - Down year for the Spartans, but they’ll take care of ND.
UNC over Iowa - The Tar Heel’s freshman have looked good early on.
Virginia over Maryland - I have UVA, but keep an eye out for Maryland PG Melo Trimble.
Georgia Tech over Northwestern - One of these teams still hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament.
Penn State over Virginia Tech - What a bad game.

Thanks again to Jim for working with us, and his outstanding analysis.  Be sure to stop by The Champaign Room for more on the Illini.

And do not forget to check out the game tomorrow night.

Game info:

Dec. 2, 2014 |  9 p.m.
BankUnited Center | Coral Gables, Fla.

560 WQAM  |  WVUM 90.5