Preview: UIC vs. Illinois - Can Tracy Abrams Stay Hot?

Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE

The Illini take on the Flames in what should be a tune-up for Big Ten play.

By the Numbers:

UIC Team Illinois
5-8 Record 10-2
Unranked Rankings Unranked
240 RPI 10
226 BPI 31
274 KenPom 50
263 Sagarin 42

Dec. 28, 2013 - United Center - Chicago, IL

2:00 p.m. ET, BTN

Skinny:

Illinois is coming off a big win over the border-rival Missouri Tigers last Saturday. The victory, which was clinched when Tracy Abrams hit a pair of free throws with under five seconds remaining, will go a long way towards deciding the Illini's postseason fate and gives their non-conference resume a much-needed boost. The 22 points that Abrams scored in that game were a season high and they helped take some of the scoring load off of Rayvonte Rice's shoulders. The junior transfer from Drake has led Illinois with 17.4 points per game this season and is a big part of why the team is off to a 10-2 start.

The Flames, on the other hand, have struggled this season even against teams that are supposed to be on their level. The squad's eight losses for the season include defeats to Eastern Illinois, UC Riverside, and Loyola Chicago. Most recently, UIC fell 74-61 at Colorado State. Although that game wasn't particularly competitive, senior guard Kelsey Barlow kept things interesting with 20 points on 9-for-18 shooting. Although UIC does have a win over decent WCC competitor San Diego this season, Illinois will be its toughest test of the season by far.

Projected Starting Lineups:

UIC Pos. Illinois
Marc Brown G Tracy Abrams
Kelsey Barlow G Rayvonte Rice
Pat Birt G Joseph Bertrand
Hayden Humes F Jon Ekey
Jordan Harks F Nnanna Egwu

UIC Players to Watch:

Kelsey Barlow - The senior sat out a season due to NCAA rules after transferring from Purdue, but in his return to the court he's made up for lost time by leading the Flames in points, rebounds, and assists this season. That's a much heavier load than Barlow was ever asked to carry with the Boilers, and as a result, he's shooting a career-low 41.8 percent from the field. A big part of that is Barlow hoisting up over five three-pointers per contest. On those, he's shooting 32.4 percent.

Marc Brown - The junior guard is UIC's second leading scorer and only player besides Barlow who averages over 10 points per game. However, Brown has slumped badly as of late. In his team's last two games (both losses), he has a total of 14 points on 2-for-14 shooting. Those ghastly performances has lowered Brown's season field goal percentage to 43.7, while UIC as a team is hitting just 43.8 percent of its shots for the season.

Jordan Harks - At 6'8" and 220 pounds, Harks is the biggest member of UIC's starting five, but he averages just 4.2 points per game thanks to some inconsistency in his playing time. More recently, Harks has played at least 20 minutes in four straight games and shown that he can score when given the chance with at least eight points in each of those contests. He even put up a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds against Division II Purdue Calumet. If Harks can stay on the floor for UIC like he has during the latter half of the non-conference slate, it wouldn't be surprising to see him lead the team in rebounding more often.

Prediction:

Illinois was upset by UIC at the United Center back in December of 2010, and a similar result here would be just as big of a shock. The Illini are superior in nearly every aspect of the game, and they should prevail comfortably. With UIC's talent concentrated in the backcourt, we could see a big game for Illinois's Nnanna Egwu.

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