Illinois, now favorites, should dominate Boston in NIT


Illinois is done being the underdog.

The Illini have been labeled as underdogs in their past five games, at least. The stretch started with three straight games against ranked opponents and then culminated with Illinois being a 9-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois has embraced a giant-killer’s mentality throughout the season, but now the Illini will have to adjust to being the giant.

No. 2 Illinois will face No. 7 Boston in the first round of the NIT Tournament on Wednesday. The Illini are heavily favored in this matchup, as they should be.

Illinois hails from the Big Ten, while Boston won the Patriot League regular season title this year. Chances are you’ve never heard of the Patriot League or seen any of the teams from the conference play in a game this season. If American was able to dominate Boston in the finals of their conference tournament, Illinois should especially be able to stifle an underwhelming Terriers attack.

Boston’s record of 24-10 is intimidating, but the Terriers have faced just two major conference teams this season. Boston did face tough mid-majors in Harvard, George Washington and St. Joseph’s, but they lost all three contests.

The Terriers aren’t particularly good on either side of the ball, ranking 166th in offensive efficiency and 111th in defensive efficiency. Boston’s best chance of pulling off the upset is their proficiency from downtown.

Boston is 23rd in the country in 3-pointers made and 18th in attempts. The Terriers 3-point attack is led by sophomore John Papale, who makes two 3-pointers per game at a 42.2 percent clip. Illinois has only been a middle-of-the-pack team defending the 3-pointer, ranking 165th in the nation in opponents’ 3-point percentage at 34.2 percent. If Illinois doesn’t come prepared to defend the perimeter, Boston could jump out to a quick lead.

Boston’s 3-point shooting prowess can especially be dangerous in front of a home crowd. Although Illini nation isn’t buzzing about this NIT matchup, this game is going to be a big deal for Boston. Boston’s Agganis Arena holds just 7,200 fans, but Illinois should expect a rowdy environment.

Illinois was given a surprising challenge by Stony Brook in a similar atmosphere in the first round of the 2010 NIT. Stony Brook had just 4,423 fans in attendance at that game, but the arena was buzzing for the program’s first postseason appearance. Illinois eked out a 76-66 win, but Stony Brook put up a fight and even led late in the first half.

The way Illinois has been playing away from home, the Illini might be secretly glad that State Farm Center is closed for renovation.

Illinois is 5-2 in its last seven road or neutral games, compared with a 1-6 record in its last seven home games. Illinois tends to play more free and easy away from home. The Illini would need to win three true road games and two neutral games at Madison Square Garden to win the NIT championship.

“I know we’ve played some pretty good basketball on the road here of late,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “Normally with the 2-seed you’d get a game or two at home at minimum, but that’s OK. We’ve been dealt cards all year and we’ve played them, and that’s what we’re gonna do in this case as well.”

Boston is a classic trap game for Illinois. Illinois knows it’ll have to travel to either South Carolina to face Clemson, or Georgia to face Georgia State if it moves past Boston. The Illini can’t play any differently than they have in recent weeks. Illinois isn’t deep with talent or offensive weapons, so playing hard is a necessity for this team to advance. As long as Illinois continues their gritting and grinding ways, Boston doesn’t stand a chance. But if they don’t come ready to play, the Terriers could send the Illini home early.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.