Exposing Providence’s supporting cast will be key

By Alex Roux

You’re going to hear Kris Dunn’s name a lot in the hours leading up to Illinois’ game at Providence on Wednesday night.

You’re going to hear Kris Dunn’s name in between the squeak of sneakers as the Illini take on the Friars.

If you’re even a somewhat attentive basketball fan, you’re going to hear Kris Dunn’s name long after Wednesday’s game is over, too. CBSsports.com ranked him as the nation’s top basketball player entering the season, and he’ll be a favorite to win the Naismith Award if he stays healthy.

Dunn is by far the Friars’ best player, averaging 15.6 points and 7.5 assists on last year’s NCAA tournament team. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound junior will be the focal point of the Friars’ offense against Illinois with his ability to score from anywhere on the court. No one else on this year’s Providence team averaged more than seven points per game last season.

In June, look out for Dunn as a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. The only reason the Illini have to face him at all in this year’s Gavitt Tipoff Games is because he passed up being a near-certain first-round pick in last summer’s draft to return to Providence and further hone his game.

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I can almost hear the Illinois fan base’s collective gulp upon reading Dunn’s accolades.

Since Dunn is so integral to this Providence team’s success — he was the Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season as well — the strategy to beat the Friars might seem obvious: Stop Dunn and you’ll have a pretty good chance.

But stopping Dunn doesn’t seem likely. Not for Illinois, and probably not for anybody. The Friars defeated Harvard 76-64 in their only game of the season, and Dunn dropped 32 points. His fingerprints were all over every aspect of the game, tallying six rebounds, five assists, two blocks and eight steals.

Yep, eight steals. His efforts earned him Big East Player of the Week honors.

Illinois likely won’t be able to keep Dunn in check, not just because he’ll be a dominant player all season long, but also because they have yet to show much of an ability to stop star players through two games this season. North Florida had two guys, Beau Beech and Dallas Moore, light up the Illini, and North Dakota State’s Paul Miller exposed some soft perimeter defense as well.

Illinois is a young and injured team. Defensive lapses shouldn’t be surprising, but head coach John Groce will need to get his guys to tighten the screws on that end to stay in games. He also has the challenge of deciding who to stick on Dunn Wednesday night.

Junior guard Malcolm Hill is Dunn’s closest counterpart, as both are do-it-all facilitators. But Dunn’s quickness off the dribble and ability to slash the lane could give Hill some problems. Alex Austin might draw the role of Dunn’s shadow as well, but holding him down will be a lot to ask of walk-on guard.

Kris Dunn will probably score at least 25 points Wednesday night and will have a massive impact on the game. But that doesn’t mean Illinois can’t come out of downtown Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center with a big early-season road win.

When playing against a team with a superstar player like Dunn, coaches often scheme to make the “other guys” — in this case Providence’s role players — beat them. I think Illinois’ best chance to beat the Friars will be relying on the opposite: the Illini can’t let Dunn’s supporting cast step up and sink them.

Drawing from a small sample size, it looks like the guy Illinois needs to worry about is 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore forward Rodney Bullock. Bullock missed the last two seasons due to suspension and injury, but racked up a combined 46 points in the Friars first two games (one exhibition vs. Division II Stonehill College and the matchup with Harvard) this year.

The Friars look to be another team who simply can’t match Illinois’ size in the paint, so look for Mike Thorne Jr., who has tallied 46 points over two games, to have another huge night offensively. Right now only fatigue and foul trouble can slow the 6-foot-11 big man down. Same goes for sophomore forward Leron Black, who will play his second game in a return from a torn meniscus.

If the Illini pound the post and hit free throws, they’ll give themselves a good chance.

Providence should be solid enough this year that a win Wednesday night would essentially offset the Illini’s opening night loss to North Florida. Illinois is the only team in the country to open the season facing three consecutive NCAA tournament teams from last year, so emerging from that gauntlet with a 2-1 record would be nothing to be ashamed of.

Lose to the Friars and fall to 1-2, and the Illini’s nonconference resume will need some serious polishing going forward.

Alex is a senior in [email protected]?@aroux94