Excellent opportunity awaits Illini in Miami

Illinois’ head coach John Groce and assistant coach Dustin Ford talk during the game against Brown at State Farm Center on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. The Illini won 89-68.

Going into the season, Illinois head coach John Groce knew the first week in December would feature a matchup with Miami in the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

I don’t think he (or anyone else) expected Tuesday’s game against the Hurricanes to feature both teams ranked in the Top 25.

Miami sits at No. 15 in the nation after starting the year 7-0, with its banner win so far coming against then-No. 8 Florida. And yes, the Illini learned Monday that their 6-0 start, highlighted by Friday’s 62-54 win over Baylor, was good enough to squeak into the rankings as well. They checked in at No. 24 in the AP’s weekly poll.

Now, Tuesday’s late game on ESPN2 has become somewhat of a marquee matchup. It’s one of four (out of 14) games in the Challenge that features two ranked teams squaring off. No matter how you spin it, this is a high-reward, low-risk game for the Illini. Barring an embarrassing blowout at the hands of the Hurricanes, this game won’t hurt the trajectory of Illinois basketball, win or lose.

I fully believe Illinois is a program with the potential to be consistently ranked in the Top 25, year after year. But after almost a decade of being largely absent from the polls, Illinois needs to restore its reputation on a national level. When the country sees a number by the name “Illinois” on Tuesday night, it will enhance the image of Groce and his program in the nation’s eyes.

    Join Our Newsletter

    It’s a game on national TV as part of a highly publicized battle between two conferences. It’s on the road, so Illinois likely wouldn’t have been favored in this game even if Miami hadn’t gotten off to a hot start this season. And at No. 24, newly-ranked Illinois is in the position where it can raise eyebrows with its quick ascent but still not be expected to beat the No. 15 team in the country in its house.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not OK with the Illini losing to Miami, nor do I expect them to. A victory over Miami would add a huge boost of momentum to Groce’s self-described “freight train” that is Illinois basketball. If the freight train is already picking up momentum, escaping BankUnited Center with a win would push Groce’s train full-speed ahead into next Tuesday’s matchup with No. 10 Villanova.

    So, how does Miami stack up with Illinois? If you remember the Illini’s 2013 NCAA tournament demise at the hands of the Canes, that game’s film won’t do you much good. Both rosters have almost completely turned over since, with only the Illini’s Nnanna Egwu and the Canes’ Tonye Jekiri as the holdovers still seeing meaningful minutes.

    Both teams are similar in that they shoot lots of threes and shoot them well. Miami is fourth-best in the country from deep, shooting threes at a 45.7 percent rate. If the Canes’ deadly backcourt of Angel Rodriguez (14.9 ppg), Sheldon McClellan (16.7 ppg) and Manu Lecomte (13.3 ppg) get hot from deep, the Illini could be in for a long night.

    However, the Illini have a good chance to win, due to the fact that they match up fairly well with the Canes’ backcourt and are playing efficient basketball at this point in the season. Illinois’ turnover rate is low (8.8 per game) and its assist-to-turnover ratio is high (1.85). Combine that with a scoring average of 90 points per game, and the Illini seem about as formidable as the Hurricanes do on paper.

    Also, with Miami’s big win over 3-3 Florida looking less impressive by the day, this really is the perfect opportunity for Illinois to steal one on the road.

    Looking back to the big picture, rankings can be arbitrary and even silly until late in the season, but there’s no doubt that the little number boosts the perception of a program. Recruits and casual observers take notice. Nearly every game will have its highlights shown on SportsCenter. Even if coaches won’t admit as much, it legitimizes what your program is working to achieve.

    Illinois has now cracked the Top 25 in each of Groce’s first three seasons at Illinois. In his first season, the Illini peaked as high as No. 10 before falling out for good early in the Big Ten season. Last year they were ranked for one week in January at No. 23 before beginning a disastrous eight-game slide.

    Groce’s third team looks to be his best yet, and will have to play with consistency to remain in the national limelight. Beat Miami, Villanova, or both, and the Illini’s nonconference resume could be glistening come March.

    They’ve gotten some recognition, and Tuesday is a golden opportunity to prove it’s deserved.

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.