Iowa State will not get their revenge game with UAB. The team wanted it. The media wanted it. Hell, even the fans wanted it. Alas, it will not happen. The Cyclones instead will face Illinois, who downed the Blazers 72-58 on Friday night.
The Illini come into tonight's match up at 3-3 and have struggled early in the season, but are finally playing with a full roster and are much better than their record indicates. The winner of tonight's contest will of course be crowned champion of the Emerald Coast Classic.
Don't let that record fool you. Illinois was playing mostly short-handed through the first five games of the year, but Friday night marked the season debut for junior Kendrick Nunn and also saw a healthy rotation featuring Leron Black and Jaylon Tate, who had also battled injuries.
Now that John Groce has a full roster, Illinois will assuredly be a much better team than the unit that lost to North Florida and Chattanooga and nearly lost to Chicago State.
Nunn led Illinois with 18 points on Friday night, but Malcolm Hill and Mike Thorne Jr. have been the two most consistent performers thus far. The 6'11" Thorne is a graduate transfer from Charlotte and at 270 pounds, is a monster inside. He's averaging 14 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Hill is a stat-sheet-stuffer, scoring 16.2 points per game, pulling down 6 rebounds and dishing out 4.8 assists.
Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands is by far the best shooter on the Illini roster, having connected on 14-29 3-point attempts this year. Another freshman, Aaron Jordan, has been equally impressive from outside, hitting 10-21 looks from deep.
If their is a silver lining to the early season injuries, it's that Groce has been able to develop depth on the roster. The Illini played 10 players on Friday night and have 11 guys averaging 10 minutes or more per contest.
So Who Wins?
This is an incredibly difficult game to predict because it's impossible to really have a feel for this Illinois team. The addition of Nunn is huge and gives them a proven scorer in the back court. Illinois was thought to be a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten and a possible bubble team, so on paper this could be the most talented team Iowa State has played yet.
Although Iowa State was only played a 7-man rotation, depth hasn't been an issue early in the season. That could change tonight with the quick turn around from last night's action. Naz Mitrou-Long played 27 minutes last night, but it will be interesting to see how his hips respond to game action on consecutive nights.
Iowa State struggled in their first two contests from outside, but the Cyclones have been red hot over the last two games, shooting 27-50 as a team from deep against Chattanooga and Virginia Tech. 3-point shooting could be huge tonight as Illinois has three players in their rotation that stand 6'10" or taller, meaning points could be tough to come by inside.
This is a game that the Cyclones should be able to control, but you have to be impressed with that 14-point win the Illinois posted over UAB. Iowa State has played sound defense and rebounded the ball well thus far and they'll need to continue that tonight to come away with the victory.
I think Illinois will pose a major challenge, but Iowa State is playing brilliant offensive basketball right now and the Illini will have no answer for stopping the Cyclone attack.
Iowa State 78 - Illinois 70
Tip: 6 p.m. CST
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Illinois SB Nation Site: The Champaign Room