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Matchup to Watch: Illinois vs. Boise State

Which point guard can keep his team’s season alive?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been quite the two weeks for the Illinois Fighting Illini.

After a string of impressive wins late in the season put Illinois on the cusp of an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Illini dropped a disappointing game to Big Ten bottom dweller Rutgers in the regular season finale. They followed with a blowout loss at the hands of Michigan to open the Big Ten Tournament, bursting their own bubble.

The team earned a spot in the NIT but had to head into the postseason tournament without head coach John Groce, who was fired after missing the Big Dance yet again.

The loss of Groce didn’t deter the Illini in the opening round of the NIT. Illinois dominated Valparaiso to the tune of an 82-57 blowout victory.

Now, the Illini will head into the NIT’s second round with even more coaching changes coming. The school announced over the weekend that it had hired Oklahoma State’s Brad Underwood to replace Groce.

The news was somewhat shocking, as Underwood had only coached one season at Oklahoma State, but now the Illini will take on Boise State Monday knowing interim head coach Jamall Walker’s days are numbered in Champaign.

So how will Illinois handle yet another off-court surprise? Having a veteran guard will help, so the season rides in the hands of Malcolm Hill.

It’s hard to pick out many differences between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Boise State Broncos. In fact, on paper, the two teams were nearly identical throughout the season.

Here’s a quick statistical comparison of the two teams:

  • Points per game — Illinois 72; Boise State 76
  • Rebounds per game — Illinois 35; Boise State 36
  • Turnovers per game — Illinois 12; Boise State 13
  • Field-goal percentage — Illinois .450; Boise State .452
  • 3-point percentage — Illinois .371; Boise State .352

Essentially, nothing stands out on either side as a massive advantage.

So, how can Illinois separate itself from Boise State? Well, starting guard Malcolm Hill is going to have to outplay Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison.

To keep with the theme of mirrored statistics, each guard is the clear leader for his respective team and puts up impressive — identical — numbers.

Let’s have another look:

-Malcolm Hill:

  • 17.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.9 turnovers, 43 percent FG (35 percent 3PT)

-Chandler Hutchison

  • 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 50 percent FG (39 percent 3PT)

Quick analysis? Hutchison’s a better scorer and rebounder, but Hill is a bit better in distribution and ball control. To beat a dead horse, they’re identical.

Hill was mighty impressive against Valpo in the first round. He finished with 25 points on 7 of 12 shooting and 4 of 7 from long range. Hutchison, though, was even better in a 5-point upset win over Utah, finishing with 34 points on 14 of 24 shooting to go with five rebounds.

Hill, a junior, and Hutchison, a senior, have plenty of experience and clear leadership capabilities. Even if the scoring diminishes — although, each guard scored in double figures in every game but three this season — they’re the catalysts of their teams’ offenses and driving forces of success or lack thereof.

In those six games of single-digit scoring, Illinois and Boise State combined for a 1-5 record, the lone win coming for the Illini against McKendree on Nov. 15.

The two guards will put on a show Monday night. Whichever of the two decides to be the headliner will most likely move on for an encore.