The last few days sure have been eventful for the Alabama basketball program. On Sunday, the University announced that Anthony Grant had been fired, effective immediately. Later that day, the NIT Selection Show revealed that the team would indeed make the National Invitation Tournament field, as had been projected, even without their head coach. This revelation also came with the news that even though Alabama is the 6-seed and the Illinois Fighting Illini (19-13, 9-9 Big Ten) are the 3-seed, the Crimson Tide will host the opening round match-up due to renovations taking place at the State Farm Center (the Illini's home). Alabama will be hosting a squad that just recently had it's bubble popped last week without Anthony Grant leading the Tide. Instead, assistant coach John Brannen will take the reigns in the interim. It's going to be a very interesting and peculiar situation in Coleman Coliseum on Tuesday night. Can the Tide persevere through the adversity and come away with a win?
Illinois Starting Five
- PG Ahmad Starks (7.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2.2 APG)
- SG Kendrick Nunn (11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- 3G Rayvonte Rice (16.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.8 SPG)
- SF Malcolm Hill (14.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- C Nnanna Egwu (6.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.8 BPG)
All discussions about the Illini this year begin and end with Rayvonte Rice. The guy is a bona fide stud and Illinois has relied heavily on him all season. In fact, one could argue their reliance on Rice was a major issue for them this year. Midway through Big Ten play, Rice was suspended for what ended up being nine total games. Illinois had their fair share of issues this season, but Rice's suspension will ultimately be the major source of "what if" questions when Illini fans look back on the 2014-15 season. Regardless, Rice is back now, and he will be the best player on the court Tuesday night, with all due respect to Levi Randolph. The Champaign, IL native is a great scorer (16.7 ppg, 47.5% FG%, 44.2% 3P%, 80.7% FT%), the team's leading rebounder (6.5 rpg despite being only 6'4), and is also a very good defensive player (team best 91.7 DRtg and 1.8 SPG). At the point, Illinois has struggled to get good play out of the senior Starks. He has struggled to shoot the ball from the field (35.4% FG%, 33.6% 3P%), though he is strong from the line (82.1%). His 5'9 size severely limits his ability to defend and rebound. He does handle the ball well though, nearly doubling his assists in relation to turnovers.
Illinois runs basically a four guard offense, with Nunn and Hill completing the four-out look for the Illini. Nunn is a solid contributor on the offensive end (40.2% FG%, 35.9% 3P%, 81.7% FT%). Hill, the second-leading scorer, might have been their most important player this season as he really stepped up when Rice was benched. He has been a steady second scoring option (14.2 ppg, 44.0% FG%, 38.8% 3P%, 78.2% FT%) and has played very well on the glass. However, he has been a bit of a liability on defense as he often finds himself having to guard guys who are much bigger than his 6'6 frame. Finally, Egwu, the lone true big man on the roster rounds out the group. Egwu's defensive presence has been his greatest asset, as he isn't much of a scorer (43.6% FG%, 6.4 ppg) and his rebounding is pretty average (5.9 rpg). However, his 6'10 size is indispensable to the Illini, as the rest of the team just isn't very big.
- G Jaylon Tate (3.7 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- F Leron Black (5.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG)
- F Austin Colbert (1.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
- C Maverick Morgan (2.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
The Illini aren't just short when it comes to height, they are also short on quality bench depth as well. Tate, the back-up point guard, may actually be a better option at the one than Starks. He has similar shooting numbers (37.3% FG%, 84.3% F%), but he is dreadful from beyond the arc (0.83% 3P%). However, Tate is a better ball-handler, which bodes well for the sophomore moving forward. Black is a very nice option off of the bench in the post, as the 6'7 freshman provides much needed depth in the front court. He has been a mediocre scorer (5.1ppg, 48.2% FG%, 68.2% FT%), but his size and ability to rebound (4.3 rpg) have been vital to the Illini. He has averaged only 14.7 MPG this season, yet has averaged nearly as many RPG as Hill has. Colbert and Morgan are only relevant contributors in that they are both tall (6'9 and 6'10 respectively). The Illini tend to go 7-deep in big games.
Three Keys to Victory
- Overcoming Adversity. It's been an emotional last few days for the Crimson Tide. For all of Anthony Grant's faults, he was an excellent leader and role model. His players really cared for him and it was obvious. How will this team react to his dismissal? Will the veteran leaders like Randolph and Rodney Cooper see to it that this team remain focused? Will the younger players like Justin Coleman and Riley Norris take this opportunity to start anew with a change in regime soon to come? Or will the team be totally checked out for this postseason match-up with no real stakes on the line? Alabama's mindset will determine whether or not they can come away with a win in this game.
- Slowing Down Rice. Illinois was able to come away with a few nice wins when Rice wasn't playing back in January, but this team will still only go as far as Rice can take them in the NIT. He will be taken in the upcoming NBA Draft for a reason. Alabama will need to bracket him whenever he has the ball, because the Tide surely don't want to let this guy get too many open looks or favorable one-on-one match-ups. Expect Alabama to sic Levi on Rice Tuesday night. Levi has the physical tools to be able to limit Rice's ability to create his own shot.
- Free Throws. Coach John Groce's team is not just a really good free throw shooting team, they are literally the best. The Illini are converting 79.4% of their opportunities from the line, and it has been their number one strength all season long. Therefore, it would be conducive to the Tide's chances of winning if Alabama can keep these guys away from the charity stripe. If Illinois can get a decent advantage in free throw attempts, that could easily make the difference in what will assuredly be another close basketball game for Bama.
It's officially the first game of the post-Grant era and there is a lot of uncertainty around the program right now. Interim coach John Brannen will have his hands full trying to guide the Tide in this NIT under these unusual circumstances. With the game being in Tuscaloosa, maybe Bama can get some much needed support from the locals, which could really help lift the team up. Regardless, Rice and the Illini will give Alabama a firm challenge. Levi and the guys will need to be able to show some resiliency if they want to continue playing this season.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.
[Ed. Note: Ticket info - $10 for courtside seats (front court and back court) and baseline reserved seats (those tickets are available only to regular season courtside and baseline ticket holders); $9 for adult general admission seats; $4 for general admission tickets for youths age 18 and under; and $4 for UA Students who present a valid I.D.]