Illinois basketball travels to Boston for 1st round of NIT

If Illinois basketball fans need to know anything about the Boston Terriers, it’s that they shoot a lot of threes and share the ball well. The team isn’t a household name in college basketball, but John Groce and his team have been doing their homework.

The Illini (19-14, 7-11 Big Ten) will travel to Boston’s Agganis Arena to take on the Terriers (24-10, 15-3 Patriot League) in the NIT opening round Wednesday.

Illinois comes into the game as the No. 2 seed in its eight-team region but will not host any games in the NIT because the State Farm Center is undergoing renovations. Agganis Arena holds roughly 7,200 fans, making it easily the smallest arena Illinois has played in this season.

Boston finds itself in the NIT by virtue of winning the Patriot League regular season — the school’s first season in the conference after years in the American East Conference — but losing in the conference tournament.

Teams in such situations are awarded an automatic bid into the NIT, and this year’s field of 32 features 13 automatic bids, the second most since 2006. Getting matched up with Illinois means Boston finds itself in position to host a game despite being the lower seed.

But the Illini aren’t worried about playing on the road. That is something they have proved they can do. Their concern is the Terrier offense.

Boston shoots more than 22 3-pointers per game and has attempted the 17th most 3-point field goals in the nation. The Terriers are spearheaded by point guard Maurice Watson, Jr.

“He has spectacular vision and ability to put balls on time on target, which feeds right into their shooters,” Groce said.

Watson isn’t a spectacular 3-point shooter, only 33 percent, but his ability to get the ball to Boston’s other shooters causes concerns for the Illini. He averages 6.9 assists per game and had 17 assists in a game two weeks ago against Army. He still leads the team with 13.5 points per game.

John Papale shoots the three at a 42 percent clip and teammate Dom Morris shoots 39 percent from deep.

“Papale is a kid that is shooting 53 percent from three in 18 Patriot League games,” Groce said. “If that was the Big Ten he’d be No. 1 in our league.”

Of Boston’s 10 losses, six came at the hands of teams that are playing in the NCAA Tournament this week.

Illinois enters the NIT playing some of its best basketball all season. The Illini have won five of their last seven, both losses coming to Michigan — the most recent one a one-point loss in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.

“As good as we played in the Big Ten Tournament, I think we have another gear for the NIT,” center Nnanna Egwu said.

While Illinois fans might be thinking of the NIT Final Four as a possibility for this Illini squad, the team isn’t getting ahead of itself. It started with practice on Monday and Tuesday.

“We felt good, we had a couple of days of good practices with a lot of energy,” Tracy Abrams said. “It’s a good opportunity to just be in the postseason.”

With the allure of Madison Square Garden looming and the prospect of having every game on national TV, every team has something to play for in the NIT.

“There’s a carrot out there for all 32 teams,” Groce said. “There’s teams in the NIT that are plenty good enough to win NCAA Tournament games, but not everybody gets in the NCAA Tournament.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.