Illinois basketball will need to bring it for 40 minutes to beat a veteran Yale team

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

When I watched Yale battle Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium the night before Thanksgiving, two thoughts passed through my head.

My first thought was how the amount of favorable calls the Blue Devils get at home never ceases to amaze me. Mike Krzyzewski was scowling, Grayson Allen was flopping and whistles were blowing. It was annoying.

My second thought was that Yale visits State Farm Center to face Illinois on Dec. 9, and that the Bulldogs could give the Illini all they can handle at home. They played Duke very tough in the first half before the Blue Devils pulled away for an 80-61 win.

Yale enters Wednesday’s game at Illinois at 5-3 after bracketing the Duke defeat with losses to SMU and Albany before getting back on track with blowout wins against Bryant and Vermont. The Bulldogs are expected to contend for the Ivy League title this season after dropping a one-game playoff last year in crushing fashion against Harvard with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.

Unlike Illinois, Yale’s positions of strength are at point guard and in the frontcourt. 6-foot-8 senior forward Justin Sears is probably the best player in his conference, and I’m not sure if anyone in John Groce’s frontcourt is capable of holding him under his averages of nearly 16 points and six rebounds per game. Feeding Sears will be sophomore point guard Makai Mason, who is currently good for 16.8 points and 4.6 dimes a night.

One of Illinois’ most glaring weaknesses is its ability to defend on the perimeter. The Illini’s 3-point defense is buried in Ken Pomeroy’s college basketball rankings at an appalling 301st out of 351 Division I teams. Yale isn’t a very good 3-point shooting team at a 34 percent clip, but we’ve seen how mediocre shooting teams find their elixir against the Illini this season.

If Illinois doesn’t close out hard and put a man on Yale’s Jack Montague — who is shooting 44 percent from three and averaging 11.6 points — it could be a long night against a veteran Bulldog team that starts four seniors. KenPom’s advanced analytics actually rank Yale as the better team right now, with the Bulldogs checking in four spots ahead of Illinois at No. 86.

Simply put, the Illini will have to put together a much better effort than we saw Saturday against Western Carolina if they want to beat Yale. That means taking care of the ball, defending the perimeter and getting Malcolm Hill more involved in the offense should all be Groce’s main points of emphasis.

I’m still looking for a repeat performance of Illinois’ game against UAB a couple weeks ago, which is the only time I’ve seen the Illini look like a complete team for a full 40 minutes this season. With Mike Thorne Jr. out due to injury, we won’t see the same lineup from that game anytime soon, but the return of that fluidity on offense and the energy on defense and the boards they brought against the Blazers would be a refreshing sight.

Outside of injuries and defense, inconsistency has been a huge problem for this Illini team. When slow starts aren’t haunting the Illini, cold spells down the stretch are. That fluctuation is certainly a product of those injuries combined with a young lineup, but Illinois has to develop some semblance of stability if it wants to turn the season around.

I don’t think 25, 30 or even 35 minutes of good basketball will be enough for the Illini to take down Yale Wednesday. They’ll have to bring it for the full 40.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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