Battle of Unbeatens: Key Questions in Illinois vs. Miami

Posted by Brendan Brody and Lathan Wells on December 2nd, 2014

As the ACC and the Big Ten teams get together on the hardwood this week, the ACC and Big Ten microsites (Brendan Brody and Lathan Wells, specifically) have also decided to team up to break down some of the key questions for a few of the games. What follows is a look at tonight’s Top 25 battle between two unbeatens: the 6-0 Illini and the 7-0 Hurricanes.

Brendan Brody: After a mediocre 17-16 mark last year, Miami is back in the Top 25 with Big 12 transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) deservedly getting most of the credit. Let’s talk about how other key players like Tonyi Jekiri and Manu Lecomte have also had an impact, and how they will affect the outcome of this game.

Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive force so far for Miami. (Gerry Broome, AP)

Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive force so far for Miami. (Gerry Broome, AP)

Lathan Wells: Lecomte looks much more comfortable playing off the ball and allowing Rodriguez to run the show this season. The result is enormously efficient basketball, as he is averaging 13.3 PPG and shooting 56.7 percent from the field. If Rodriguez and McClellan are being stifled, he offers a third excellent perimeter scoring option. Jekiri, to his credit, has blossomed into a force around the basket, averaging just shy of 11 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. For a team relying on consistent guard and perimeter play, he has helped to keep the Hurricanes balanced. While it’s true Rodriguez and McClellan are driving Miami’s hot start, don’t be surprised if Lecomte comes up with a few key baskets or if Jekiri helps keep Miami on the plus-side of the rebounding margin. Illinois hangs its hat on defense first, but the Illini rank fifth in the country in averaging 90 points per game. How will they handle a lower scoring contest if Miami is able to slow things down?

BB: Illinois has been lighting things up offensively, but John Groce’s team managed to grind out a win against Baylor on Friday in a game that was played at a much slower (64-possession) pace. They were able to win that one despite getting pounded on the glass (-14 rebounding margin) by forcing 15 turnovers and by holding the Bears to a miserable 5-of-21 shooting night from behind the arc. The Illini would prefer to play fast, but if Miami wants to make this one a half-court slugfest, Illinois is mor than comfortable doing so. The combination of Rayvonte Rice and Kendrick Nunn gives the team two defenders by which to harass McClellan all night, while Ahmad Starks and Jaylon Tate can force the ball out of Rodriguez’s hands. They also have several post defenders to throw at Jekiri should he get going on the inside. Miami has been shooting the ball really well — to the tune of 45.7 percent three-point shooting (fourth in the country) — so how does this continue against a stingy Illinois defense that allows only 28.6 percent shooting from distance?

LW: Truthfully, it probably won’t. Miami’s numbers are otherworldly right now, so they’re bound to come back down to earth eventually. However, this team has a number of players with an ability to hit contested shots, and the three-headed monster of Rodriguez/McClellan/Lecomte on the perimeter makes it difficult to focus on shutting down any one player. The key will be the Hurricanes’ ability to have some success inside, starting with Jekiri, to force the Illini defense to honor the post as an offensive weapon and allow for easier Miami shots from downtown. At this point in the season, Rice has been a sensational offensive catalyst for his team. But is Illinois equipped to handle a potential off night from its superstar? Who would be the Illini’s next best option to carry the team on the offensive end if Miami can clamp down on the Las Vegas Invitational MVP?

BB: Malcolm Hill would need to step up if Miami can contain Rice. He’s been lethal in showing off a much improved mid-range game, averaging 14.2 PPG on 56 percent shooting from the floor. If the Hurricanes focus too much on Rice, transfers Starks and Aaron Cosby can also score the ball. They both struggled against the length of Baylor (a combined 2-of-13 from three), but they’re shooting 38.8 percent from deep on the season. This isn’t the Rice-dominated Illinois offense from last year, so much like Miami, there are multiple weapons at Groce’s disposal.

  • Miami Wins If: Rodriguez, McClellan, and Lecomte hit roughly half their shots and the team holds its own on the boards. A game played in the 70s or lower would be better for the Hurricanes, as Illinois has proven it can score in bunches.
  • Illinois Wins If: They hold Miami to less than 35 percent shooting from three. If the Illini can force Miami into an off shooting night, they will use their superior depth to force the Hurricanes to play at a faster tempo and make decisions in transition.
Brendan Brody (307 Posts)

Brendan Brody is in his fourth season covering the Big Ten for RTC. Email him at, or follow him on twitter @berndon4.

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