Illinois (18-14) enters the game in the midst of a program sea change as John Groce was fired after five seasons at the helm. Interim head coach, Jamall Walker, will lead the No. 2 seeded Illini for the duration of their NIT run as the athletic department searches for Groce’s replacement.
Illinois’ play against the No. 7 seeded Crusaders (24-8) tonight will be anyone’s guess. The Illini didn’t seem interested in the Big Ten Tournament as they easily laid down against Michigan on Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament. If Illinois is able to circle the wagons around Walker, they could do some damage in the NIT. The winner of tonight’s match up will play the winner of Boise St and Utah.
What could decide tonight’s game?
Let’s take a look at a key matchup from Champaign.
-Malcolm Hill vs. Valparaiso’s Defense
Illinois has to get Hill going tonight if they want to advance to the second round. They haven’t done much winning when Hill struggles.
The Fighting Illini are 2-6 when Hill scored 12 or fewer points this season. When Hill scores over his season average (16.8 points per game), Illinois is 11-4.
The last game for Hill fit into last statistical mention. Hill was non-existent against an ever-improving Michigan defense. The 6’ 6” wing scored just four points on 1-8 shooting. Other than a three point effort in November, it was Hill’s worst game of the season.
Valparaiso has some defense metrics that could mean some trouble for Hill tonight.
The defensive stats for Valparaiso are a mixed bag.
The Crusaders were a top 10 KenPom defense last season under Bryce Drew. After Drew moved on to Vanderbilt, that number has dipped to No. 87 this season. On the flip side, Valpo ranks in nearly the top 40 in defensive field goal percentage and in a statistical dead heat with Wisconsin (41%).
Adding to the difficulty for the Crusaders is that their best player, Alec Peters, was lost for the season two weeks ago. Peters is known for his offensive ability (23 points per game), but Valparaiso needs their best players on the floor tonight.
So, what can can we expect tonight?
I think Hill will be due for a bounce back game. Michigan has really improved on defense and Hill struggling was probably an outlier. He was averaging over 18 a game in his previous four games. I also don’t think Valparaiso has the athletes to stay with the lengthy and crafty Hill. With Valpo missing their best player, they have not been the same team (1-2).
You also have to factor in another home game for the senior Hill. He was instrumental with 22 points in a senior night victory over Michigan State on March 1st.
Still, it is hard to predict how a team will respond after the firing of their coach. It could go many different ways for Illinois in their first round matchup of the NIT. A focus on Valparaiso’s success in shutting down Hill could be the key to how Illinois fares against the Crusaders.