Illinois won’t take American lightly in preparation for Villanova

Illinois’ Ahmad Starks looks for an open pass during the game against Brown at State Farm Center on Nov. 24. Starks had a couple of rough shooting nights since the Illini last played in Champaign. 

In sports, the definition of a “trap game” is when a lesser opponent lurks on the schedule immediately before playing a big game. 

No. 24 Illinois basketball plays American on Saturday. Then, the Illini take on No. 10 Villanova on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden as part of the Jimmy V Classic.

This upcoming matchup with American at State Farm Center looks like a textbook trap game on paper. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. 

Following a 70-61 road loss to No. 15 Miami on Tuesday in which the Illini looked lost at times on both ends of the floor, the American game is a perfect opportunity for them to get back on track in time for next week’s game against Villanova.   

Don’t think for a second that Illinois head coach John Groce will allow his players to overlook the Eagles. He wasn’t happy with his team’s execution in the Miami loss, and the numbers from that game show where the Illini failed.

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    They shot just 33 percent from the field against the Hurricanes, including 7-for-30 from 3-point range. The Illini won’t apologize for shooting a high number of threes — they’ll jack ‘em up all year — but poor shot selection at times limited the efficiency of the Illinois offense against Miami. 

    Look for Illinois to be a bit more selective with its shots against American. Groce has made it clear that if his shooters are open, he expects them to let it fly. We know Illinois can shoot and make a large volume of shots against lesser teams, when it averaged 95.6 points per game in its first five contests. The team didn’t show the same capability against Baylor and Miami, averaging 61.5 points in those games. Illinois also had a season-low seven assists against the Canes. 

    But if the Illini can treat the Eagles like a high-caliber opponent, while focusing on the execution aspect of their offensive gameplan by moving the ball and getting quality looks at the basket, they’ll be better prepared to take on Villanova.

    American is currently allowing just 49.2 points per game to its opponents, so expect them to attempt to slow the Illini’s up-tempo offense. I’m not saying Illinois should play into American’s hands by slowing the game, just that an emphasis on ball movement and quality shots against the Eagles can benefit the Illini’s mindset heading to New York on Tuesday.

    Also noticeable in the Miami loss was the uncharacteristically high number of easy baskets the Illinois defense allowed to the Canes. A less-athletic, less-prolific American offense will offer the Illini an opportunity to shore up key defensive principles — such as weak-side rotations and help-defense in the paint — and allow them to get back in their comfort zone that Miami seemed to knock them out of. 

    As Groce has emphasized in the past, so much of basketball success comes from the right mindset and confidence. None of his players have shown a lack of confidence so far this season, but guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have had rough shooting nights as of late. Starks was a combined 3-for-19 from the field against Baylor and Miami, while Cosby was 1-for-16 over those two games. 

    These guys are good shooters, and like good shooters sometimes do, they’ve hit a rough patch. For most slumping shooters, simply seeing their shots go through the net does wonders. The American game gives Starks and Cosby — and the rest of the team — a chance to build confidence in their shots. Starks and Cosby are a huge key to the success of the Illini this season, and I believe they’ll find their stroke. 

    So as top-10 Villanova looms large on the other side of the weekend, American isn’t a trap game at all.

    It’s just what Illinois needs.

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.