It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for the Fighting Illini: it started as a disaster, then turned into a potential NCAA at-large bid before a prompt first round exit in the Big Ten tournament led to the swift firing of coach John Groce.
Illinois enters tonight as the No. 2 seed. If all goes as planned, a date with Illinois State could decide which Illinois team heads to the Final Four of the tournament at Madison Square Garden.
But first, Valparaiso. The Crusaders enter tonight after an impressive 14-4 record in Horizon league play. The problem is, the Horizon is one of those conferences in which a team needs to win the tournament to have virtually any shot of entering the highly competitive 68-team NCAA tournament field.
Let’s take a look at the game.
-Illinois Fighting Illini vs Valparaiso Crusaders
- Time/TV: 7:15ET — ESPN 2
- Covers spread: Illinois (-9)
1. How will the team respond after the departure of Groce?
When news broke of the firing, there were likely a few players in the locker room that took it on the chin. Generally, when a coach is terminated due to an absence of wins and success, the players feel remorse and a sense of guilt because, after all, they are the ones on the court capable of bringing in victories.
The energy level from Illinois is something to keep an eye on tonight. To me, it seems like it could go two different ways: they could come out with a fiery chip on their shoulder or they could could hit the floor in a somber way and give an uninspired performance.
2. Can Valparaiso shake off its first round exit in its conference tournament?
Heading into the Horizon League conference tournament, Valparaiso was expected to seriously contend for the coveted automatic bid, even without its leading scorer Alec Peters, who is out for the season with a stress fracture.
The Crusaders brutally dropped their first game to a last-place Milwaukee game and virtually ended all hope for the big dance. Now, heading into the NIT, the Crusaders are primed to prove that they win without Peters and are better than the product they showcased in their conference tournament.
3. How will Malcom Hill end his Illinois career?
Hill has seen a lot of losing during his tenure with Illinois. Throughout it all, the senior consistently took the floor and handled his business as the leading scorer for the team.
A deep run in the NIT in Hill’s last rodeo could perhaps eliminate some of the sour taste of four consecutive losing seasons in the Big Ten. Hill didn't even expect to play on his home floor again after Senior Night, so this one should be special for him as well as sixth-year guard Tracy Abrams.
It would be a stark upset if Valparaiso defeats Illinois tonight. The Crusaders are without their leading scorer and, if you are not familiar with Horizon League play, the absence of Peters is like removing Abrams and Hill from the lineup.
- Pick Against The Spread: Valparaiso