Admittedly, neither Illinois-based squad is in their top form this season; both having lost many key contributors from a season ago. However, don’t overlook the emotional factor for Illinois State tonight, a squad comprised mainly of kids from the Illinois area who were largely unrecruited by the local Big Ten powerhouse.
Illinois enters the game at 4-0, though largely untested. The passed through Lipscomb and a down Richmond squad with relative, though unimpressive, ease. I am not sure Illinois State merits a true Big Ten preparing “test” athletically, but the Missouri Valley squad is well coached and will enter the game with a sharp focus.
Illinois State has passed the same Lipscomb test, with a similarly comfortable though unspectacular margin of victory. They opened the season with a disappointing loss at Fresno State, but has been unblemished since. Illinois State lost five seniors from last year’s NIT squad, but has decent size and excellent perimeter shooting to replace the departed seniors.
Illinois will rely heavily on the offense of Brandon Paul this season, and early on, the returns have been poor. Paul is shooting just 18% from distance and under 38% overall on the young season. If he continues to struggle with his shot, it places a ton of pressure on D.J. Richardson in the back court, and the unproven Meyers Leonard inside. Demtri McCammey certainly had his detractors; often Coach Webber among their foremost, but when push came to shove, the gritty McCammey carried the Illini offensively for long stretches and kept them competitive in the upper tier of the Big Ten. It remains to be seen if anyone on this year’s squad will be able to assume that mantle – early indications are “no.”
For Illinois State, it is certainly a team-collaborative effort, with nine players averaging over 13 minutes a game in the early season, and five players averaging between 9 and 12.7 points per contest. They will need that balance to keep the superiorly athletic Illini off balance tonight in Cancun.
Illinois has a much larger profile, but talent and experience wise, these teams are much closer to even that one would expect from a distance. Illinois State is a middle of the pack team with potential in a solid mid-major league (MVC), while Illinois is an unlikely NCAA participant in a very solid Big Ten. It shakes out to about a four or five point advantage for the Illini on a neutral floor. However, Vegas lines don’t necessarily asses predicative outcomes, they assess public perception in an attempt to keep action even on both sides of the line. That creates an opportunity tonight to get a few extra points backing the Redbirds. That’s my official pick tonight. Take Illinois State and the +10.
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Bonus Picks: I love Duke tonight laying only 5 against an overrated Kansas squad that was clearly outclassed by Kentucky and struggles with an average Georgetown squad, and am backing Memphis -1 against Georgetown in an early dynamite 5th place game from Maui; even after yesterday’s exhausting 2OT thriller against emotionally-charged instate rival Tennessee.