#2 Illinois at #4 UCF
It would be a lot cooler to be writing about #2 Illinois at #1 Illinois State today, but the Redbirds blew a 13-point halftime lead and UCF has a point guard who knows how to draw fouls from next to nothing. So, Illinois is flying to Orlando today rather than bussing to Normal and a lot of the shine on this game is gone.
About UCF, for one, their coach has been here before. Johnny Dawkins won two NIT championships while coach at Stanford, and that may be like the Monopoly “$10 for second prize in a beauty contest” but it’s not nothing. As for the team, Tacko Fall (amazing name) was the AAC defensive player of the year, which is a feat in a conference including SMU, Cincy, and Houston (all 20-game winners, as are the Knights). At 7’6″ (!), Fall has a great advantage over, well, everyone and he also boasts a mind-boggling 8’4″ wingspan. Good luck to Mav Morgan, Michael Finke, Leron Black and anyone else shooting over this dude.
Like Fall, the Knights make their money on defense, with the nation’s 5th best scoring defense (20th adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom; Illini are 36th). On offense UCF doesn’t quite match up to Illinois, but they got the chance to host thanks to a conflict at State Farm Center, which gives them a bit of a boost (Vegas has Illini as underdogs). Illinois is the only top-3 seed left in the NIT, but the team is certainly playing more for personal pride than to justify their seeding; I’m fairly certain Malcolm Hill and Tracy Abrams want to keep their careers going.
My prediction: UCF are the toughest opponent the Illini will have seen in the tournament, but I think they can squeak by the Knights.