The Illinois Men’s Basketball team is off to a hot 6-0 start to the season coming into their first road game, and arguably first true test, with a game tonight against Wake Forest (2-4).
Illini fans will, of course, recognize Wake Forest from the classic match-up against them (when Wake was #1 ranked nationally) when the likes of Dee Brown and Deron Williams wore the Orange and Blue, squaring up against Chris Paul and co. in the 2004-2005 season.
The Demon Deacons were selected to play in the first four as an eleventh seed in last seasons’ NCAA Tournament, and were eliminated in a play-in game against Bruce Weber’s Kansas State team.
This year’s Wake Forest team features a solid group of players, each having the potential ability to challenge the Illini in different ways.
Below, I give what I think will be the key things to watch for in tonight’s game, and my predictions on how I think the Illini will fare in their first regular season road game.
What to Watch: Wake Forest Demon Deacons
– The Wake Forest team has lost a few games to smaller schools early on in the season, including the likes of Drake, Liberty and Houston, and will be on the hunt to show their home crowd that they remain a contender after last season’s NCAA Tournament appearance. They’re coming off of a home win against UNC Greensboro.
– The Demon Deacons (did you know that name came from a win over their rival, Trinity, which later went on to become Duke?) have a big post presence in their 7’1 280-pound Center Doral Moore. He’s averaging 10.3 points per game, and 7.8 rebounds a game. The Illinois lack height around the rim when compared to Moore, and he is likely the most skilled big-man the Illini have faced to date. Moore will have a large impact on the game.
– The Demon Deacons also boast the best guard combo Illinois has seen yet, with Bryant Crawford (15.8 ppg., 4.0 apg., 3.5 rpg.) and Keshawn Woods (17 ppg.). Crawford is the best multi-tool guard that the Illini will have seen. Look for Illinois’ Mark Alstork or Mark Smith to be on him most of the game. Woods adds a complimentary shooter for Wake Forest, and leads the team in steals per game (1.6).
Key to the Game, Wake Forest: My biggest key for this Wake Forest team is to slow down the high-paced Illinois offense, utilizing their height inside. Doral Moore’s endurance will be tested against Underwood’s offense, but should he stay out of foul trouble, he will have a huge opportunity for points in the paint against this smaller Illini team.
What to Watch: Illinois Fighting Illini
– The Brad Underwood era has started off quickly, and the team has done well thus far. The Illini have (for the most part) competently handled all of their smaller-school opponents, and now sit at 6-0. Playing on the road changes the story. For a team mostly made up of freshmen, and only boasting one senior in Graduate Transfer Mark Alstork, handling the pressure of a good team on the road will be key for them to leave 7-0. It will be interesting to see how the young team handles the road pressure, in arguably their first real test of the year.
– The Illini will rely heavily on their guards to play well on defense to stop the high scoring Wake Forest duo mentioned above. The Fighting Illini will need a big defensive game from Mark Smith and Mark Alstork. That being said, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see Damonte Williams (arguably the best defensive player on the team, currently) showcase more in this game. His decision making, as well as ability to avoid foul trouble, could have a big impact on this game. It’s not a definite, but he has made good use of his minutes early on in the season on the defensive side of the court.
– Another key to this game for the Illini will be their perimeter shooting. The shooting started off slow for the Illinois team, but has improved in recent games. The main standout shooter for Illinois from the perimeter is Aaron Jordan. Jordan is currently shooting 65% from 3PT, one of the best shooting clips in the nation. He’ll have to get hot tonight if the Illini can’t find a way to get Doral Moore into foul trouble early on. Perimeter shooting will be huge will Moore is in the game, with a noticeably smaller Illinois team as stated above.
Key to the Game, Illinois: The Illini will need to be able to find a way to play around Doral Moore. Moore’s tall and big stature will prove an interesting challenge for an Illinois team without a big man of that size. Illinois’ fast paced offense will be key, testing Moore’s speed and stamina. Look for the Illini not to be afraid to have some shots blocked, and continue to attack the basket, looking to get Moore into foul trouble. If they can do this, they’ll have a much bigger shot at winning this game.
Prediction: The game will be close going into halftime, with Illinois hanging in against Wake Forest’s size and guard play, but the Illini offense will be fast paced enough to either beat Moore down-court, or to get him in trouble, letting their scorers go to work. The Illini should be able to contain the Demon Deacon’s guard-play, and Illinois moves on to 7-0.
You can watch the game on ESPNU at 8 p.m. Central Time.
Nate Williamson is a Journalism student at the University of Illinois, and is a writer, co-founder and editor for The Sports Guys Blog. You can find him for more coverage focusing on Illinois, NBA, US Men’s National Soccer Team, and others at @ThatNateWGuy or here on site.