Preview | #12 illinois (23-11) vs #5 VT (21-11) | Friday, 3/16 | 7:10 PM | Columbus, OH

The Hokies return to the big dance for the first time since 1996 on Friday night. They will be the favored team when they take on national power illinois in a First Round match-up. It seems odd to think that Virginia Tech is 7 seeds higher than illinois, but that will be the case when the two teams take the floor on Friday in Columbus, OH. illinois played for the National Title just two years ago, losing to unc by a 75-70 score.

Virginia Tech played in Columbus, OH last season when they played ohio state in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. BUT, that game was played on ohio state’s home court, Value City Arena, while this game is being played at Nationwide Arena where the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL play. illinois did not play in Columbus this year against ohio state.

The Hokies are 0-2 all time against the illini with both games at neutral sites in exotic locales. The first meeting was in the Puerto Rico Shootout Championship Game in 1994. illinois beat VT 85-75. Remember, that was the Tech team that won the NIT. The two teams met again two seasons later in 1996, this time in Hawaii. The illini waxed the Hokies that time 92-68.

The Hokies are a much better offensive team than the illini. illinois has struggled to score points all season. VT is only #101 in scoring offense with 72.8 points per game, but that’s still almost eight points higher than illinois’s average. The Hokies are a more athletic team and need to push the tempo. If VT can turn this game into a track meet, they will bury the illini. illinois will want to keep this game in the half court set and either bomb threes (McBride and Meacham) or feed it inside to their big men, Carter, Pruitt, and Randle.

Hopefully, Deron Washington can stay out of foul trouble early (unlike in the ACC Tourney). He can have a big day against the slower illini defenders. Jamon Gordon had a ridiculous 10 steals in the ACC Tournament. If he can continue that trend, the Hokies should get easy buckets. Vassallo really came on in the ACC Tourney, leading VT with 34 points in the two games combined. And if Dowdell can get his three-point touch back, the Hokies can light up the scoreboard. Tech must force illinois to respect VT’s three-point shooting to open up the lanes to the baskets. Otherwise, illinois can pack things in and neutralize VT’s penetration (see this article on the importance of VT’s 3-point shooting). Expect illinois to drop both guards back on D to keep the Hokies from pushing the ball and getting fastbreak points.

Virginia Tech needs to realize that this game will likely be called tight. As I mentioned above, Deron got into foul trouble in both games and Coleman Collins also had issues with fouls. Zabian and A.D. fouled out in the nc state game. Tech must be slightly less aggressive on D, especially on illinois’s big men when they are posting up. Just get hands in passing lanes like Zabian and Jamon do so well. On offense, attack the hoop to draw fouls on the illini. Let’s just hope Tech shoots better than 8/19 from the line (nc state game).

The Opponent:

The illini finished as the #6 seed in the Big Ten this season, tied with two other teams for fourth with a 9-7 conference record. They beat the #11 seed, penn state, in the first round of the Big Ten Tourney. Then, they upset the #3 seed indiana in overtime in the quarters. illinois lost to the #2 seed and #4 team in the nation, wisconsin, in the semi-finals.

The illini are a veteran team with their top three scorers all upperclassmen. They have eight guys in their rotation with three seniors, two juniors, and three sophomores in the bunch. These guys have some tournament experience, but only Rich McBride saw significant minutes for the team that went to the National Title Game two years ago, and he was a role player off the bench.

The illini are not talented on the offensive end, which is the standard this year in the Big Ten. It has turned into a very tough, defensive minded conference played at a slow tempo. illinois averaged just 64.5 points per game, shot just 43% from the floor, and an awful 63% from the line. So if the game comes down to free throws… well, I don’t think either team would feel too confident at the end.

They shoot a decent 35% on threes and put up almost 20 per game. They get what little points they get out of the paint or beyond the arc. They will not get many points in transition, from the line, or their midrange jumpers. The Hokies will have to make sure they rotate well on the perimeter as they did against wake, and do a good job of making the post players catch the ball away from the basket (they did not do a good job of that in the ACC Tournament).

illinois does have size inside with 6’10″ Shaun Pruitt, 6’9″ Warren Carter, and 6’8″ Brian Randle seeing significant minutes. But they average under three blocks a game, so their job is mostly just to score in the low post and battle on the boards. They average almost five more rebounds a game than their opponent, so Tech’s low post players and guards will have to help on the glass. Tech cannot afford to give up offensive rebounds and easy put-backs.

The only serious three-point shooters for the illini are Rich McBride and Trent Meacham. Almost 80% of McBride’s shot attempts are threes, and 65% of Meacham’s, so Tech will have to play them tight on the perimeter. They can play them tight out there as they have almost no ability to drive and create. McBride is a pure spot-up shooter.

Carter, Pruitt, and Frazier are the only guys that get to the line with any regularity for illinois. Carter is a decent free throw shooter, but Pruitt is awful at almost 50% on 150 attempts. Frazier isn’t much better at 59%.

On defense, illinois is 6th in the nation in scoring defense. Teams average just 57.1 points per game against them. Again, this is in part due to the crappy offenses in the Big 10, illinois’s slow tempo approach to the game, and good defensive players. The illini will look to get guards back on defense and not attack the offensive boards (with their guards at least) to avoid Tech pushing the tempo and getting transition buckets.

The illini will be playing without sophomore Jamar Smith. He was one of their few talented guards, but he got into a car accident in mid-February and was charged with a DUI. In the accident, Smith thought teammate Brian Carwell had died and Smith fled the scene. Thankfully, Carwell lived. Carwell has not played since the accident. Teammate Rich McBride pled guilty to a DUI last Fall and sat out illinois’s first four games.

History: This is illinois’s 8th straight trip to the Big Dance. They have won at least one game in each of their seven previous trips, but they also were never worse than a #5 seed in any of those years. They have made it to the Final Four five times, but just twice since 1952 (1989 and 2005).

Tidbits: They have a Brian Randle. Though, obviously, his first and last name is spelled different than our former QB Bryan Randall. Their mascot has been banned from ever performing at a game since due to the NCAA’s new rule about Indian heritage. He performed for the final time at their last home game against penn state.

Player Stats:

Category

illinois

Per Game

VT

Per Game

Leading Scorers

#41 Carter

13.7

Dowdell

18.0

 

#55 Pruitt

11.6

Washington

11.8

 

#33 McBride

9.5

Vassallo

11.4

Leading Rebounder

#55 Pruitt

7.6

Washington

5.4

Assists Leader

#3 Frazier

4.4

Gordon

4.6

Blocks Leader

#41 Carter

1.0

Collins

1.1

Steals Leader

#3 Frazier

1.5

Gordon

2.7

3-Point Shooter*

#1 Meacham

40%

Vassallo

44%

* Must average making one three per game played.

Team Stats:

Category

illinois P/G

National Rank

VT P/G

National Rank

Scoring Offense

64.5

 

72.8

101

Scoring Defense

57.1

6

64.6

 

FG %

43%

 

47%

44

FG % Defense

40%

28

42%

 

FT %

63%

 

66%

 

3-Point %

35%

 

37%

90

3-Point % Defense

32%

 

34%

 

Turnover Margin

+1.0

 

+4.6

6

Rebounding Margin

+4.9

33

-0.1

 

Assists

14.0

 

13.6

 

Steals

5.9

 

8.5

30

Blocks

2.9

 

4.8

34

Games Against NCAA Tourney Teams (seed shown):

As you can see in the table below, illinois was just 4-9 against teams in the NCAA Tournament and one of those wins was against #16 seed jackson state. VT was an impressive 8-4 against Tourney teams: VT vs NCAA field of 65

illinois

Score

11/15 – #16 jackson state

W 76-55

11/28 – #4 maryland

L 66-72

12/02 – at #8 arizona

L 72-84

12/29 – #9 xavier

L 59-65

1/06 – #1 ohio state

L 44-62

1/14 – at #9 michigan state

L 57-63

1/20 – #2 wisconsin

L 64-71

1/23 – #7 indiana

W 51-43

1/27 – at #9 purdue

L 47-64

1/30 – #9 michigan state

W 57-50

2/10 – at #7 indiana

L 61-65

3/9 – #7 indiana (Big 10 Tourney)

W 58-54 (OT)

3/10 – #2 wisconsin (Big 10 Tourney)

L 41-53

Common Opponents:

Not much to go on here. Both teams beat iowa at home. But illinois lost to maryland at home and lost at iowa, while the Hokies took care of business against the terps at home.

illinois

Score

VT

Score

11/28 – maryland

L 66-72

11/29 – iowa

W 69-65

1/10 – iowa

W 74-70

1/21 – maryland

W 67-64

3/3 – @iowa

L 53-60

 

 

illinois’s Recent Games:

illinois

Score

penn state

W 68-60

@iowa

L 53-60

Big Ten Tournament

 

penn state

W 66-60

indiana

W 58-54 (OT)

#4 wisconsin

L 41-53

[The Wick will be doing In Game Commentary. Feel free to add your comments as the game unfolds.]

This post was written by:

- who has written 1216 posts on Tech Hoops.

Niemo is a member of the VT Class of '98. While not a professional journalist by any stretch, Niemo analyzes and breaks down every minute of Hokie hoop action. He also researches topics of interest such as Hokie recruits, program revenue, statistical data on the team, previews VT opponents, and discusses his favorite bourbons/Scotches. In addition to his passion for Hokie hoops, Niemo has attended 126 straight VT football home games (every game since '94), eclipsing the 100 mark in September of '09 and recently attended his 20th consecutive VT/uva game. During the final home basketball game of his senior year, he was brought onto the court and was awarded 2 passes to the Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament in Philly during a timeout for being a "Super Fan" during his time at VT. The Hokie Bird made the award on behalf of Athletic Director Jim Weaver. Niemo was known to be in the front row of every home game with his familiar red afro hairdo.

Contact the author | Visit the author's website | Follow Niemo on Twitter

  • ToneLoke

    These guys are gigantic and they play like oafs. Do you think NC State could beat them?

    I think we should go with our small lineup (starting both AD and the human highlight reel), and not even worry about those tall guys. Just start running and don’t look back. We won’t have to worry about rebounding if all we are doing is dunking on fast breaks. If you are reading this Mr. Sailes, I said dunking. No lay-ups for you.

    On another note, does anyone hate their friends who have nothing better to do than drive to Columbus for the weekend? Then they get mad at me because I have work!! Insult to injury. Reminds of the time a certain someone intentionally got himself laid off to coincide with football season. I am not ready to make that sacrifice….yet.

  • Niemo

    Hey, I wasn’t laid off, I was fired for gross incompetence. That took a lot of no work and lack of skill. I earned that state-government-paid vacation during football season.  If you were a real man, Tone Loc, you’d have stepped up and gotten canned, too.  “A job ain’t nothin’ but work, right now I wouldn’t even take a…”

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