Evansville at Illinois
When and Where: Thursday, Nov. 8, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill., 8 p.m. EST.
Brad Underwood’s rebuild of Illinois gets into full swing in his second season Thursday night when the Fighting Illini kick off 2018-19 at home against Evansville as part of the Maui on the Mainland portion of the Maui Invitational.
The Illini went 14-18 in Underwood’s first season after his surprising departure from Oklahoma State following an NCAA Tournament in his only season in Stillwell. Only four players return from last season’s team, with Underwood looking to build around the backcourt combination of holdover Trent Frazier and highly touted freshman Ayo Dosunmu.
Evansville native McCarty set for head coaching debut
Walter McCarty brings a lengthy pedigree as a former star college player and serviceable NBA player before embarking on a coaching career more than a decade ago, but the Evansville native has much work to do in rebuilding a program that has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999.
McCarty was a member of Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament-winning team in 1996 and then had a 10-year NBA career. His former college coach Rick Pitino gave him his first coaching job as an assistant at Lousville, and from there McCarty also made stops in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, where he spent the past five seasons before Evansville came calling.
“I am excited about the opportunity to not only be a head coach, but to come back home and be around people who have supported me my whole life,” McCarty said at his introductory press conference in March. “Growing up here in Evansville, they have always had passionate basketball fans and the University of Evansville has been a big part of that. It has had a large impact on all of our lives as kids growing up and playing basketball in this state.”
Despite being a new head coach, there is plenty of experience on the sideline with McCarty, who lured one-time Butler coach Todd Lickliter with him to Evansville, continuing a relationship they had in Boston while Lickliter was a scout. Another ex-Bulldog, Matthew Graves, is also on the staff and had connections to current Celtics coach Brad Stevens after serving as an assistant to him at his alma mater from 2010-13.
“He has a rare combination in that he’s very confident and competent but also very humble, and I think that leads to what people want to see in a program,” Lickliter told the Courier & Press about McCarty. “A team you can relate to and support that will give maximum effort and represent the institution and great community in a positive way.”
The trio will be working from the ground up as the Aces were picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll by the media. Evansville lost its top three scorers from last season’s 17-15 team, and its three best players on the roster are sitting out this season due to transfers (Sam Cunliffe and Art Labinowicz) and NCAA eligibility issues (DeAndre Williams).
— Evansville Basketball (@UEAthletics_MBB) September 27, 2018
That leaves Dainius Cheatkevicius and K.J. Riley as the top two options to fuel Evansville’s offense. Cheatkevicius averaged 4.8 points and 5.4 rebounds, while Smith is the Aces’ leading returning scorer at 6.8 points per game.
While Evansville shot 41.1 percent from 3-point range last season, it only made 5.8 of them per game. McCarty will be upping the tempo for an Aces team that averaged 65.4 points in 2017-18, better than only Northern Iowa in The Valley. Evansville did rank 11th in the country in scoring defense last season, yielding 63.9 points per game.
New-look Illini could be in for long season in Big Ten
For Underwood, the offseason overhaul of his program this summer came in large part of building Illinois in his identity. Underwood won 89 games — including two in the NCAA Tournament — in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin and brought Oklahoma State to the field of 68 in 2016-17 before his arrival in Champaign.
The Illini have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013, and while it may also be out of reach this season, Underwood is content to tear it all to the ground and rebuild.
“We were a team every night that you went in and weren’t sure what you were getting,” Underwood explained to Blue Ribbon Yearbook. “That’s something that has to change in your everyday approach. That’s what we’re trying to change here.”
That change starts with Frazier, who was second on the team in scoring and assists at 12.5 and 3.1 per game, respectively, in earning all-Big Ten freshman honors. The sophomore shot 34.7 percent from 3-point range but 40.5 percent overall.
Dosunmu was the linchpin of Underwood’s recruiting class, a five-star commit after averaging 25.2 points at Morgan Park High School in Chicago, and the length of the 6-foot-5 prep star is a key reason Underwood is trying a three-quarters court press to help generate offense.
“Ayo and Trent are great together because they’re different,” Underwood explained. “You’ve got a jet-quick guy in Trent who can score and get his shot on anybody. Then you’ve got Ayo who has that length. He’s got great vision and he can score in his own right.
“Their versatility and their ability to do different things make them a great combination.”
They will be joined by another newcomer, junior college guard Andres Feliz, who averaged 20.0 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds for Northwest Florida in earning first team all-NJCAA honors. Feliz had 20 points off the bench in Illinois’ exhibition win over Illinois Wesleyan last week.
Aaron Jordan is Illinois’ best 3-point shooter after hitting 46.3 percent of his long range attempts last season, but he must do a better job moving without the ball. Jordan shot 15 of 46 from beyond the arc in conference play after opponents scouted the Illini thoroughly.
Combo forward Kipper Nichols anchors the frontcourt after averaging 10.0 points and 4.2 rebounds, and Underwood is hoping freshmen Tevian Jones and Anthony Higgs can step in and immediately contribute.
After facing Georgetown in the Gavitt Games, the Illini will play their first-round Maui Invitational game against No. 3 Gonzaga on Nov. 19.
- No trends of note.
- The under is 40-18-1 in its last 59 games as a favorite of 13.0 or more points.
- The under is 38-18-1 in its last 57 games as a home favorite of 13.0 or more points.
- The under is 38-18 in its last 56 non-conference games.
- 0-5 ATS in its last five games as a road underdog of 13.0 or more points.
- 2-5 ATS in its last seven games vs. Big Ten teams.
- 0-5 ATS in its last five games as an underdog of 13.0 or more points.
- The under is 7-3 in its last 10 road games.
- The under is 8-2-1 in its last 11 non-conference games.
- The under is 4-1 in its last five games vs. Big Ten teams.
The Bottom Line What to bet on this game.
Full-Game Side Bet
While both teams are in the early stages of a deep rebuild, Illinois has two distinct advantages. One is Underwood starting the second season of his rebuild, and he has talent — potentially elite talent — in the backcourt.
Backcourt talent can overshadow some deficiencies, and on a roster sporting six freshmen, those deficiencies are going to pop up at various points and various positions. Frazier appears set to take over the leadership reins, but don’t sleep on Feliz — he could be a difference-maker.
Evansville had a balanced offensive attack in its exhibition victory over Division II opponent New Mexico Highlands, but the Aces are taking a large step up in caliber of opponent and athleticism here in the Illini. This game will likely be ragged at points, especially if Underwood uses his press, but Illinois should be able to pull away in the middle of the second half to comfortably cover.
Prediction: Pick: Illinois -14
Full-Game Total Pick
With both teams sporting so many new faces and the gap in talent between them, it is difficult to see Evansville putting up enough points in this contest to help over bettors. With McCarty borrowing a page from Butler in the building of this team, there is going to be a grinding efficiency on both ends of the court that will keep this game low-scoring.
Prediction: Pick: UNDER 143.5 points
Half-Time Side Pick
With the Illini expected to use their full-court pressure, there is the potential to score points in bunches if it is effective, and in playing an opponent with a new coach and lesser talent, Illinois should be able to steadily build a lead throughout the opening 20 minutes.
Prediction: Pick: Illinois -8
Half-Time Total Bet
As one of the more deliberate teams in the country last season, Evansville topped 70 points just three times in non-conference play. With the Aces looking to play in a style similar to “The Butler Way” while they try to raise the talent level for that type of success, there does not seem to be enough offense and tempo to create enough possessions for the teams to hit the over.
Prediction: Pick: UNDER 71 points