Illinois basketball faces Clemson in NIT second round

The Illinois men’s basketball team knows it was lucky to survive its first round NIT matchup at Boston University. The Illini rallied from a 17-point deficit Wednesday behind Rayvonte Rice’s 28 points to top the Terriers by four. 

John Groce’s squad realizes it can’t expect to dig itself out of such a hole against Clemson on Sunday. The Illini and the Tigers square off in the NIT’s second round at 10 a.m. on ESPN.

“I don’t think we came out with the energy level and the focus that we needed to, certainly not the first 15 minutes of the game,” Groce said. “I didn’t think we had enough competitive toughness. I didn’t like our energy level or our focus.” 

Groce thought the last four minutes of the first half was a key juncture for his team. In those last four minutes before halftime, the Illini were able to cut Boston’s lead from 17 to nine.

“You have to be ready in any postseason tournament,” Groce said. “There are a lot of teams, a lot of coaches, a lot of different styles.”

Once again the Illini will play on the road. Renovations to State Farm Center will keep them off their home court throughout the NIT. Sunday’s game will be played at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C. 

Clemson presents a physical style, similar to many of the teams Illinois has played in the Big Ten. 

Tigers’ forward K.J. McDaniels stands at 6-foot-6, but plays much bigger. He leads the team with 17.4 points per game. His team-best 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game are more impressive when considering he primarily plays the 3 for the Tigers.  

Other than McDaniels, no Tiger averages double-figures in points. Landry Nnoko is snatching 6.1 rebounds and blocking 1.9 shots per game.

Clemson is 12th in the nation in blocked shots per game. The duo of McDaniels and Nnoko could present challenges in the lane for the Illini. 

“Clemson has some shot blockers,” senior forward Jon Ekey said. “If we start the way we did last time, they might not let up. We were fortunate it worked out that way. We didn’t start the game (Wednesday) ready to play.” 

Illinois center Nnanna Egwu said the Tigers remind him of a Big Ten team, primarily because of their physical style of play. He compared Clemson’s big men to those of Purdue and Michigan State.

The winner of Sunday’s game will face Belmont in the NIT quarterfinals on Tuesday night with a chance to head to Madison Square Garden in New York for the NIT Final Four. Belmont defeated Robert Morris in the second round on Friday. 

For Illini senior Joseph Bertrand, a win would also be a nice birthday present. Bertrand turns 23 on Sunday. He knows every NIT game could be his last in orange and blue. 

“It’s in the back of my mind, that it will be my last game if we lose,” Bertrand said. “That’s why we want to keep going as far as we can.”

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