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2017 NIT Preview: #2 Illinois vs. #4 UCF

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Illini carries momentum into Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Michigan Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After a rough start to March, Illinois is looking to end the 2016-17 season on a positive note. A win at UCF (23-11) in the NIT quarterfinals on Wednesday would go a long way in ensuring that the Illini (20-14) have momentum heading into the offseason.

It won’t be easy, as Illinois goes up against a UCF team that has won eight of its last nine games. The fourth-seeded Knights are coming off a 63-62 upset of top-seeded Illinois State on Monday. The Illini reached the quarterfinals with an 82-57 first-round win over seventh-seeded Valparaiso and a 71-56 win over sixth-seeded Boise State.

Let’s take a look at the game.

-Illinois Fighting Illini vs. UCF Knights

  • Time/TV: 6 p.m. CT — ESPN 2
  • Spread: UCF (-3.5), MyBookie

Can Illinois’ senior-laden lineup keep it going?

Illinois didn’t have any momentum after back-to-back losses to Rutgers and Michigan in early March. However, outgoing seniors can be a deciding factor in the postseason, and Illinois has plenty of those.

One of those seniors, Malcolm Hill, is among the best players in the NIT. Hill is averaging 19.0 points per game in the tournament, bouncing back from scoring just 4 points on 1-of-8 shooting in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan. The 6-foot-6 guard, a second-team all-Big Ten selection, is averaging 16.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game on the season.

Hill is joined by Tracy Abrams, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, Mike Thorne Jr. and Alex Austin in a six-man senior class. Morgan and Abrams are the difference-makers. Abrams is averaging 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.0 block per game. Morgan is adding 9.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

The trio of Hill, Abrams and Morgan has the Illini playing with confidence as they look to extend their season as long as possible. Reaching the NIT semifinals in New York next week would help the Illini move on from a tough couple of seasons that ended in the dismissal of head coach John Groce.

How will the Illini play away from home?

Illinois rolled through its first two games of the NIT, winning by an average of 15.0 points per game. However, the Illini have played both of those games at home. How are the Illini going to react when they leave Champagne and play against UCF in Orlando?

Illinois’ last true road game wasn’t encouraging. The Illini suffered a 62-59 loss at Rutgers on March 4, the final day of the regular season. But Illinois had some road success late in the regular season, winning three straight road games prior to the Rutgers loss.

On the season, Illinois is 3-6 in road games and 3-3 at neutral sites. On the other hand, UCF is 14-3 at home on the season, including winning three straight.

What happens if the game’s close?

It’ll be interesting to see how each team responds if the game goes down to the wire. Illinois and UCF have had different runs through the NIT thus far. The Illini have rolled, playing at home and winning by an average of 19.0 points per game. Conversely, the Knights have had two games come down to the final minute.

UCF held off a Colorado rally to pull out a 79-74 home win. The Illinois State game had even more pressure, as the Knights overcame a 13-point halftime deficit and B.J. Taylor hit a pair of free throws with 1.3 seconds left to give them a 63-62 road win.

If Illini gets in that situation, the ball will likely be in Hill’s hands. UCF also brings the mismatch of 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, who is averaging 11.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on the season. Illinois will need to attack his shortcomings on the defensive end, while limiting the damage that Fall can do in the paint.

On the other end of the floor, the Illini are giving up just 56.5 points per game in the tournament. They’ll have to limit the UCF duo of Taylor (17.7 points per game) and Matt Williams (15.0 ppg), a pair of guards who have shown they can make plays down the stretch.

Overall

Illinois’ best bet on Wednesday is to get off to a quick start. If they do so, they should be able to limit UCF’s home-court advantage and control the game like they have thus far in the NIT. However, the Knights are fresh off overcoming a double-digit second-half deficit on the road.

The NIT can be hard to predict and this year is a perfect example. Illinois is the highest-seeded team in the quarterfinals, while the rest of the teams are all seeded fourth or lower. With that in mind, the best bet is to expect a close game and take Illinois with the points. Wednesday’s winner earns the right to play fourth-seeded TCU or sixth-seeded Richmond on March 28.

Pick Against The Spread: Illinois