Opponent: Georgia Southern Eagles (Statesboro, Ga.)
Date / Time: Friday, November 14th - 9:00 PM ET
Location: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Illinois' 2013-14 season resembled a sandwich. That sandwich consisted of two delicious, crusty pieces of French bread surrounding meat and cheese that were left out to draw maggots and run over by someone's car to boot. Suffice it to say that if you lose 10 of 11 games at any point during your season, it's highly unlikely you'll reach the NCAA tournament, and so it was for the Illini.
Illinois salvaged some pride with a late-season surge, winning six of nine including one each in the Big Ten tournament and NIT. Now, the Fighting Illini get to wipe the slate clean and attempt to prove that last year's strong start and finish are much more indicative of their current talent level than the miserable middle. Last season is relevant because most of last season's team is back, with the addition of some veteran transfers and potential impact freshmen to boot.
Coach John Groce's troops kick off his third season in charge by welcoming new Sun Belt member Georgia Southern to the State Farm Center. The Eagles, like Illinois, have a balance of experience and youth, but is there anywhere close to enough talent to pull the upset?
Getting to Know Georgia Southern
Three fifth-year seniors pace the Eagles. 6'2" combo guard Jelani Hewitt led the team in assists, scoring and steals last season, topping the entire Southern Conference in the latter two. He's an aggressive penetrator who drew 184 free throw attempts last year, fourth-most in the SoCon. Illinois' younger guards will have a busy night trying to contain him. 6'8" wing Eric Ferguson jeopardized his season with offseason legal issues. As the days count down, he becomes less likely to see his indefinite suspension lifted in time for the trip to Champaign. If he does face the Illini, he'll provide a streaky outside shooter and athletic slasher.
Forwards Trent Wiedeman and Angel Matias are hard-nosed rebounders, but the 6'4" Matias will likely be physically overmatched by Illinois' front line. At 6'8" and 255 pounds, Wiedeman shouldn't have that problem, but he'll still be seeing a lot of Nnanna Egwu, meaning he'll have a hard time getting his shots off unless he can force Egwu into foul trouble. The former College of Charleston big man earned All-SoCon honors in 2011-12 after averaging 12.1 points and 8.7 rebounds, but this will be his first game with GSU.
Ball movement was an issue throughout last season for the Eagles, as they finished dead last in the nation in assist percentage according to Pomeroy. Aside from Hewitt, no other returning Eagle dished more than 28 dimes. Of course, that's largely because there aren't many returning Eagles, as coach Mark Byington has brought in seven freshmen in his 2014 recruiting class. Sniper Jake Allsmiller, point guard Devonte Boykins and 6'8", 235-pound bruiser Coye Simmons should all see time against the Illini.
What to Watch For
The Illini have a lot more frontcourt size than GSU, but the Eagles do return a more experienced core, with four seniors among their group of forwards. Frontcourt reserves like sophomores Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert, to say nothing of freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke, have a chance at substantial minutes in this game, but they must produce to see time against better opposition. Black in particular could see a chance at a double-double if he's not being pushed around by the burly Wiedeman.
The backcourt minutes may become unsettled if Ahmad Starks struggles against Hewitt's aggressive defense. The Oregon State transfer was never terribly turnover-prone in Corvallis, but he was also not his team's primary ballhandler. Starks and Aaron Cosby are counted on to rectify the Illini's leaky perimeter offense, but there are too many other talented guards on hand to allow either man to simply specialize in catching and shooting. Groce could elect to test sophomore Jaylon Tate with extensive minutes against the quick-handed Hewitt.
There aren't many teams out there that return three former all-conference selections, but the Eagles do just that. However, GSU appears stuck in an awkward transition phase with several seniors and an enormous freshman class with little in between. Those freshmen will play like freshmen in their debut on the road against a Big Ten team that returns most of its significant contributors. The Illini should have some time to experiment later in the game, especially if Ferguson isn't cleared to play.
Illinois by 20.