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Illini basketball preview: VCU

Illinois vs. VCU
2 p.m., in Miami, Fla.
TV: CBS Sports Network

With just five games left in the nonconference season, Illinois (5-3) has work left to do in order to stay within striking distance of an NCAA Tourney berth. Based on the way the Big Ten is looking, with Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin looking like top-tier teams and another five or six behind them looking dangerously talented, winning out these final five games would be an ideal situation for the Illini.

Winning out, naturally, is no easy task, and the most difficult opponent of the last five might be Saturday’s, VCU (6-1). The Rams are a veteran team that plays stifling defense. They play aggressive, like West Virginia, but operate more of a half-court defense rather than full-court press. KenPom loves VCU, ranking them top 40 with the 28th adjusted defense, and they are rated highly in RPI as well, placing 33rd. JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox are studs for the Rams, racking up big usage and plus/minus numbers. 

The key for Illinois, as we saw against NC State, is minimizing unforced errors and turnovers, playing well in the post, and keeping active on defense. One thing to watch for, in particular, is how well John Groce sticks to a rotation. In the last game he seemed settled on playing Tracy Abrams, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Malcolm Hill, Leron Black, and Mike Thorne, with Te’Jon Lucas, Michael Finke, and Maverick Morgan the main options off the bench. These roles suited the team well, and while Aaron Jordan, DJ Williams and other guys might have something worthwhile to offer, sometimes it’s best to just roll with what’s working.

My prediction: Justin Tillman comes on strong for VCU, getting Leron Black into foul trouble and feasting on weaker defenders as the Rams win.

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