2006-07 Basketball Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Illinois

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#5 Virginia Tech (21-11, 10-6 ACC) vs. #12 Illinois (23-11, 9-7 Big Ten)

Friday, March 16, 2007, 7:10 p.m.

TV: CBS


Special Preview Items:

When Virginia Tech takes on Illinois Friday night, it will not only be a
battle of the teams’ differing styles, but of their respective conferences as
well. Virginia Tech will bring two good guards to the table, as most ACC teams
do, while Illinois will employ two big guys on the interior and will try to
grind it out, as do all Big Ten teams. Who is the better team? It’s tough to
say, because they play such differing styles of basketball, and their
competition has been very different.

Even if you’re just a passing fan of college basketball, you are probably
aware of the quality that the University of Illinois puts on the court every
year. The Fighting Illini have advanced to the NCAA tournament for eight years
in a row with their latest bid, and 10 of the last 11 overall. They have
averaged over 26 wins per year over the past six seasons, second only to Duke in
average wins per year.

Here is a look at how Illinois has done in their last nine NCAA tournament
appearances.

Illinois
in the NCAA Tournament
Year Seed Result
2006 4
2nd Round
2005 1
National Title Game
2004 5
Sweet 16
2003 4
2nd Round
2002 4
Sweet 16
2001 1
Elite 8
2000 4
2nd Round
1998 5
2nd Round
1997 6
2nd Round

That’s very impressive. A trip to the National Championship game, an Elite 8 and
two Sweet 16s. Perhaps even more impressive, they haven’t been eliminated in the
first round in their last nine tournament appearances. The last time the
Fighting Illini were eliminated in the first round was back in the 1995.

One caveat: Illinois is just 1-7 when facing a team with a higher seed in the
NCAA tournament.

Now that you know a little bit about Illinois’ rich basketball tradition,
let’s take a closer look at their current team.

Illinois
Starters
Pos Player Ht Wt Class Pts Rebs

G

Chester Frazier

6-2
190
So.
7.4 4.5

G

Rich McBride

6-3
205
Sr.
9.5 2.1

F

Brian Randle

6-8
220
r-Jr.
7.4 4.7

F

Warren Carter

6-9
220
Sr.
13.7 6.2

C

Shaun Pruitt

6-10
245
Jr.
11.6 7.6

Don’t let Illinois’ recent run at the National Championship game fool you. Only
two current members of the Fighting Illini team played in that game against UNC.
Warren Carter came off the bench to play five minutes and grab one rebound. Rich
McBride played two minutes but didn’t even attempt a shot.

All the regulars off that team are gone. The players that are currently on
the team aren’t as talented and aren’t nearly as explosive offensively. They are
more of a blue collar, scrappy team that plays great defense and does the job on
the boards. They’ve also had numerous issues that they’ve overcome this season
to advance to the NCAA tournament.

Illinois has had several key injuries that have held them back as a team this
year. Starting point guard Chester Frazier was less than 100% for much of the
season because of a knee injury. Now it appears he may have re-injured that knee
during the Big Ten Tournament win over Indiana. He played against Wisconsin in
the semifinals, but he was not 100%. He’ll definitely play on Friday, but it’s
not clear exactly how healthy he is.

Starting forward Brian Randle has also been injured for much of the season.
Randle has had ankle and groin injuries which limit his movement. He is a very
good defender, and his physicality and size are a mismatch at the small forward
position.

In mid-February, a car crash involving sophomore Jamar Smith and freshman
Brian Carlwell rocked the Illinois basketball world. Smith was charged with a
DUI and other felony charges, and Carlwell has been out of action since with a
severe concussion. Smith will sit out the remainder of the season, and the loss
of his 22.5 minutes per game is major. Carlwell was averaging seven minutes per
game in 26 appearances as well.

To make matters worse for Chester Frazier, he is Smith’s roommate and has had
to deal with some of the off court drama. To add insult in injury, Frazier
recently found out his father has been diagnosed with cancer.

In a way, the 2006-07 Fighting Illini are like last year’s Hokies with the
injuries and off-court drama, except Illinois managed to get into the NCAA
tournament. This is arguably the best coaching job in the fine career of Bruce
Weber.

Illinois is a team that lacks athletes on the perimeter and, because of the
injuries and off-court issues, depth. When Frazier was injured in the beginning
part of the season, the Illini struggled with quick guards that excel at
penetrating into the lane. Their defense improved as Frazier’s health improved.
Is Frazier healthy enough to stop the dribble penetration on Friday?

Frazier wore a knee brace during Illinois’ Big Ten semifinal loss to
Wisconsin Saturday, and was limping noticeably (per USAToday.com ) when the team
gathered to watch the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday night. He’s definitely not
100%.

The other Illinois guard is senior Rich McBride. He’s a shooter, and although
his statistics don’t indicate it, he’s a good one. He has very deep range,
perhaps the deepest range of any player the Hokies have faced all year. McBride
relies heavily on the three-pointer. He has attempted 272 shots on the season,
and 226 of them have come from the outside.

McBride only shoots 33.8% from the field and 34.5% from three-point range,
but that’s because a lot of his shots are from very deep. He’s not much of a
driver, with just 31 free throw attempts on the season. Tech needs to find him
in transition and avoid getting lost moving through screens in the half court,
because McBride has the ability to make them pay.

Brian Randle plays small forward for Illinois, but he’s really more like an
extra power forward on the court. He is a very athletic player, but he’s been
limited this year with injuries, as noted above. He really locks down on the
defensive end of the court, and he matches up very well with Deron Washington.
He has superior size and strength, but he also has the quickness and athleticism
to stop Washington.

Illinois’ greatest strength is their inside game. Power forward Warren Carter
is a mismatch because he can play inside or outside. He has effective back to
the basket moves, so you have to guard him down low, but he can also step out
and hit the three-pointer, like NC State’s Brandon Costner. Carter is shooting
41.1% (30 of 73) from three-point range this year. He is also a good free throw
shooter at 71.2%, so putting him on the line won’t help much.

The main advantage the Illini will have over the Hokies is center Shaun
Pruitt. Pruitt is listed at 6-10, 245, but could be bigger than that. He is very
physical, and he’s a true back-to-the-basket center, which Virginia Tech doesn’t
have. If he catches the ball cleanly down low, it’s pretty much over. He’s a
very good finisher, hitting 55.4% of his shots this year.

Pruitt’s one weakness is his free throw shooting. He is hitting just 51.3% of
his free throws this year, and he has attempted more free throws (150) than any
player on Illinois’ team.

Illinois doesn’t have much depth coming off the bench. They play just eight
players in the regular rotation, and one of those players gets just nine minutes
per game. Two of the reserves, Calvin Brock and Trent Meacham, are guards.
Meacham is a solid three-point shooter at 39.5%.

Illinois
vs. Virginia Tech

Category
Illinois Virginia
Tech
Stat Conference
Rank
Stat Conference
Rank
FG% 43.2% 10 47.2% 6
FG % Defense 40.3% 3 41.7% 4
3-Pt. % 34.9% 9 36.7% 6
3-Pt. % Defense 32.3% 4 34.2% 7
FT % 62.6% 11 66.4% 10
Rebounding Margin +4.9 3 -0.1 11
Turnover Margin +1.03 7 +4.59 1
Assist/TO Ratio 1.01 8 1.24 2
Scoring Offense 64.5 8 72.8 9
Scoring Defense 57.1 2 64.6 2

Average
6.5 (out of 11) 5.8 (out of 12)

Illinois ranks at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in all offensive categories,
including field goals, three-pointers and free throws. On the other hand, they
rank near the top of the conference in all the defensive categories.

Illinois will play a tough man-to-man defense against Virginia Tech. Zone is
something you rarely, if ever, see from a Bruce Weber-coached team. The Hokies
will have to be disciplined and take good shots.

The Hokies also don’t go to the zone defense that much, but if you’re going
to see it from Tech, this would probably be the game. Tech wants to deny
Illinois the entry pass to Pruitt and Carter on the inside and force them to
shoot from the outside. The Illini have struggled against the zone this year,
because they have precious few outside shooters. When Rich McBride isn’t hitting
his shots, they are as bad a team as you’ll see from the outside.

On offense, look for Virginia Tech to try to run in transition whenever the
opportunity presents itself. Any easy basket scored in transition against
Illinois is important, because the Illini will have a hard time matching it on
the offensive end.

Illinois is a team that appears to be better than they should be. Despite
losing two key depth players in the February car crash, the Illini have won
eight of their last 11 games. Their only losses in that span came on the road at
Indiana and Iowa, and in the Big Ten semifinals against Wisconsin. They have
gotten better at the end of the season, although their Big Ten schedule was
easier at the end of the year than it was back in January.

Why Virginia Tech Might Win

1) If Virginia Tech gets into a running game, they’ll almost certainly
win this game. Illinois has injuries, less depth, and their guards aren’t nearly
as athletic as the Hokies’.

2) If the Hokies keep the basketball from the hands of Carter and Pruitt
on the inside, they’ll probably win. The Illinois guards can’t beat the Hokies
on their own.

3) If Tech can out-rebound Illinois, or at least come close, they’ll take
a huge step in getting the win. Carter and Pruitt are very good offensive
rebounders. If they are limited on the glass, Illinois will have to generate
points elsewhere, which will be difficult.

Why Illinois Might Win

1) If the game is completed played in half court mode, Illinois will have
their best chance to win. In Virginia Tech’s 21 wins this year, they have
averaged 78 points. In their 11 losses, they have averaged 63 points.

2) If Tech gets poor production from Deron Washington and A.D. Vassallo,
Illinois will likely win. It seems that in Tech’s big victories this year,
either Washington or Vassallo, or both, has had a big game. If they are both
shut down on Friday, that will put too much pressure on Tech’s guards.

3) Like it or not, it’s going to be a pro-Illinois crowd on Friday night.
Illinois fans travel great for basketball and will almost certainly travel
better than Tech fans. Southern Illinois fans could be rooting for Illinois as
well, as Bruce Weber used to coach the Salukis. And naturally, since UVA is
playing in Columbus as well, many Hoos fans in attendance will be cheering hard
for the Illini.

Bourbonstreet’s View

Let’s recall my Tournament Criteria for selecting teams: (note: I
always drop Bench for the NC2A’s because it does not allow for a back-to-back
gaming format, as Conference Tourneys always do)

  • Rebounding Margin (or a major Front-Court presence)
  • Defensive FG% Allowed (these top-2 can not go cold)
  • Overall Experience
  • Recent play (checking for a streaking hot or cold team) and incoming
    health, (where applicable)

Now let’s use that Tournament Criteria as a filter for the Virginia
Tech vs. Illinois first round NCAA match-up.

Rebounding Margin:

  • Virginia Tech: Rebounding Margin=185th, Offensive Rebounding=192nd,
    Defensive Rebounding=160th
  • Illinois: Rebounding Margin=33rd, Offensive Rebounding=111th, Defensive
    Rebounding=222nd

This is the one true possible match-up problem for the Hokies on this year’s
Fighting Illini hoops team … their front-court. They have two big, solid,
upperclassmen to hold down the Center and Power Forward spots. The rest of the
Illini front-court is pretty sizey, in fact Illinois does not have a single
front-court player under 6-8 in height, or south of 225 pounds in weight. Be
aware that Coach Bruce Webber normally runs a 3 Guard Motion based set on
offense and has done so for years. You must chase Illinois on every possession.
When you do not, Illinois gets open looks, or offensive rebounding lanes. So a
measurable front-court edge goes to Illinois.

Defensive FG% Allowed:

  • Virginia Tech: Defensive FG% Allowed=81st
  • Illinois: Defensive FG% Allowed=28th

Coach Webber is a Coach (Gene) Keady — of Purdue fame — disciple. That
means a lot of pressure on defense, a few traps, and an extended man-to-man, and
nothing but man-to-man. You will see at most a couple of minutes of Zone or
Triangle-and-Two out of Coach Webber in an entire basketball season.
Illinois is 6th in scoring defense, and 55th in defending the three. The Hokies
are a pretty solid defensive team in our own right, as they are 199 spots ahead
of Illinois in steals and 159 spots ahead in blocks. So this one’s basically even.

Overall Experience:

  • Illinois Overall Experience: 8 straight NCAA bids, 2 Big-10 Titles and 1
    runner-up finish since 2003, National Title runner up in 2005, 28 average
    wins in the last four years.
  • Virginia Tech Overall Experience: 1 straight NCAA bid, 16 average wins in
    the last four years.

Obviously the Illinois kids are enormously experienced for only being an NCAA
12th seed, as they have not only been to the proverbial Big Dance, they’ve
recently played in the grand ball. Our team does start one more upperclassman
than the Illini do, but that’s not enough to wipe out the lopsided postseason
experience and postseason pressure advantage that Illinois brings to the table.
Sizeable edge to Illinois.

Recent Play:

  • Virginia Tech Recent Play: 5-6
  • Illinois Recent Play: 8-3

An 8-3 finish with a conference tourney win for a team that had to play 10
games without its top returning player (Brian Randle, in-season groin surgery),
is no bad way to close. Our Hokies have played .500 basketball since the end of
January. But then there are the Illinois health and off-court problems that that
dogged the Fighting Illini all year long.

Illinois best backcourt baller and possibly the best pure shooter in the
Big-10, one Jamar Smith, has suffered two different ankle sprains, and one DUI
this season; he is out for the year. Smith is the second Illini baller to get
popped with a DUI this year, as Sr. Guard and fourth leading scorer Rich McBride
was arrested during the preseason and served a six game suspension for his
illicit auto-piloting ways.

Brian Randall still has a bum foot and a nagging groin injury. McBride,
Pruitt, and Frazier are all dinged up. So the edge here goes to our Hokies,
but not by much, as the Illinois recent improved play might be enough in this
category, if the Illini were 100% healthy.

More …

Despite all of that, our Hokies do have the Greenberg recipe cooking to win
this first round game, as steals (by 207 spots), blocks (by 159 spots) and
turnovers (by 102 spots) all favor VT. But for five straight years a 12 seed has
beaten a 5 seed. Is this the 12-5 upset for 2007? To find out we have to consult
with Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

Here is my extrinsic article
on just how badly our hoops team needs a BIG-stage or a BIG-name to play their
best. Illinois is a BIG-name school from a BIG-time conference. That’s the Dr.
Jekyll part. Intrinsically a BIG-name translates into a faster game-tempo for
us. This is an absolute nonnegotiable necessity for the only ACC hoops team with
no legit back-to-the-basket post presence on offense. But in as much as we need
a Formula-1 pace, we have drawn a team that is laden with restrictor plates and
nothing but restrictor plates. Think NC State’s stall-ball offensive tempo, but
with 237 spot edge in scoring defense, and a 159 spot edge in defensive FG%
allowed compared to the Wolfpack. That’s Illinois, and that’s the Mr. Hyde part.

Pre-Season odds to win the NCAA Tourney:

  • Virginia Tech, 25,000:1
  • Illinois, 3,500:1

Current odds to win the NCAA Tourney:

  • Virginia Tech, 50:1
  • Illinois, 300:1

Our Hokies are .417 all-time in the NC2A’s, and when our Hokies get beat they
average exactly 63 points this year. That’s your in-game barometer, and this one
will be very low-scoring, and therefore very close. In other words it’s an ugly
game just begging to happen, and just like the recent Illinois mascot battle
over the political-correctness of Chief Illiniwek, it could turn either way.

Virginia Tech 65 Illinois 63

Final Four Picks: Florida, Kansas, Georgetown, Ohio State
March Madness Champion Pick: Florida repeating vs. Ohio State

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