Illinois men’s basketball faces first real test at NIT Season Tipoff

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Elisabeth Neely

Te’Jon Lucas (3) dribbles the ball towards McKendree’s basket in the game against McKendree on Tuesday. The Illini won 112-65.

By Lucas Wright , Staff writer

On the heels of the team’s most dominating performance of the young season, the Illinois men’s basketball team opens the NIT Season Tip-off on Friday with a matchup against Detroit.

The Illini (3-0) are coming off a 47-point win over Division-II McKendree and are preparing to play on one of the biggest basketball stages in the world: New York City at the Barclays Center. The invitational also features No. 19 West Virginia, Temple and Florida State.

Before the Illini can head to New York to get to the much-anticipated matchup with the Mountaineers, the team must get through two preliminary games in Champaign.

Detroit comes into the Friday game with a 1-1 record, recently suffering a 29-point loss to Eastern Tennessee State. After Detroit, Illinois will host Winthrop on Nov. 21 in a final tune up for West Virginia on Nov. 24.

In the win against McKendree, six players scored in double figures, and the team showed it was capable of producing without star guard Malcolm Hill dominating the offense. Hill was held to three points but got some much-needed rest with Illinois dominating the game.

Another bright spot for Illinois was the solid play of point guard Te’Jon Lucas off the bench. Filling in for Tracy Abrams, who was in foul trouble for most of the game, Lucas was 4-for-4 from the field, tallying nine points and six assists in 22 minutes.

“I was just ready when my number was called,” Lucas said. “I thought our ball movement was great today; we had a lot of assists. I think we had 20 assists and a couple turnovers, so that’s just great.”

Illinois will need to see sharp play from all of its guards against West Virginia and Bob’s Huggins’ stout full-court press. The Mountaineers were one of the top defensive teams in the country last season, and Huggins’ teams have a knack for forcing turnovers and creating havoc on the court.

West Virginia is forcing 23.5 turnovers per game this season and averaging 97 points. While the Illini have seemed to be at their best when they can run the floor, the matchup with West Virginia might be better set for slowing down the pace and trying to limit the Mountaineer attack.

The matchup between the Mountaineers and Illini will be the Illinois’ first time playing on an ESPN affiliate since their blowout win over Minnesota in last year’s Big Ten Tournament. Illinois is 17-23 all-time playing on ESPN under Groce.

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