This Wednesday, Notre Dame (4-2) will travel to Champaign to take on the Fighting Illini (3-4) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Notre Dame is looking to rebound after a disappointing result in the AdvoCare Invitational that saw the Irish lose to Monmouth and their ravenous bench and an Alabama team that played more like Derrick Henry against Auburn than the Crimson Tide team that went 8-10 in a soft SEC last year. Poor free throw shooting (47% against Monmouth) and a defense that is still developing its chemistry (gave up 54.4% field goal percentage against an Alabama team shooting 43% on the year) will be the storylines to watch going forward.
Illinois has had an up and down start to 2015-16 season. Illinois is 3-4 without a signature win thus far, but has flashed its potential in a close loss against an underrated Providence team and a strong performance in the Emerald Coast Classic. The Fighting Illini beat Chicago St. and UAB and held a 2nd half lead in the championship game against the #4 Iowa St. Cyclones before ultimately falling 84-73. But the biggest news for the Illini coming out of the tournament; Starting center Mike Thorne Jr. is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus that he suffered during Saturday’s loss to Iowa State. Thorne Jr. has been indispensable inside for John Groce’s squad, averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Injuries are turning out to be a major story for the Illini as they play the second straight season without senior point guard Tracy Abrams, lost for another year with a torn left Achilles tendon.
Matchup to Watch
Malcolm Hill v. Steve Vasturia: Hill has stuffed the stat sheet for the Illini to the tune of 16.7ppg, 4.3apg, and 5.9rpg. Vasturia has averaged nearly 13ppg this season, shooting 40% from behind the arc. But he is most valuable for this Irish team on the defensive end, checking opposing teams’ most potent perimeter scorers. Watching Vasturia try to keep Hill in check should be fun to watch all game long.
X-Factor for ND
Demetrius Jackson is the obvious answer (he’s really, really good), but I’ll be watching to see if Notre Dame center Zach Auguste can take advantage of an Illini team that plays its first game without 6’11” Thorne. Auguste already has 4 double-doubles on the season and will look to dominate inside against an Illinois team that has a lot of questions to answer in the paint.
X-Factor for Illinois
Maverick Morgan: Morgan has been a nice surprise off the bench for John Groce so far this year and is the likely replacement for Thorne (along with Michael Finke). He has contributed 6.4 points per game while shooting 67.7% from the field. I’ll be curious to see how the junior responds to increased minutes and an expanded role for Illinois. He should be able to contribute 8-12 points, but will need to be formidable in defending Auguste and protecting the paint from a slashing Demetrius Jackson for Illinois to have a chance in this one.
Hill and Kendrick Nunn combine to score 40 for Illinois, but too much Jackson and too much shooting from the Irish. Notre Dame bounces back from a tough tournament with a nice win over an Illinois team that enters the game with a 36 game winning streak in non-conference home games (3rd longest active streak in the nation behind Duke and Minnesota).
Notre Dame – 76
Illinois – 64
University of Notre Dame ’18
Stats retrieved from: ESPN.com, Fightingillini.com, SBnation.com
Photo Credit: USA Today