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Villanova vs. Illinois preview: Q&A with The Champaign Room

Jim Vainisi helped us learn more about the Fighting Illini.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova will play Illinois in the first of two games as part of the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night. Villanova will play as the 'home' team, and hopefully their strong fanbase in the Northeast corridor obliges in making Madison Square Garden a pro-Nova atmosphere.

Illinois comes in at 6-1, their lone loss coming on the road to Miami (FL). The last time these two schools went head-to-head was actually on the recruiting trail, when Jalen Brunson committed to Villanova over Illinois in September. No doubt John Groce will be looking to make a statement.

To learn more about Illinois, we called upon Jim Vainisi of The Champaign Room (one of the best blog names on the network).

1. Illinois is off to a 6-1 start with the lone loss coming against a Top 25 foe in Miami (FL) - is this team meeting or exceeding the fanbase's expectations? What players have stepped up?

I think the Illini are squarely on pace with the preseason expectations of the fan base. It seemed pretty widely accepted that going at least 11-2 in OOC, and winning 3/5 against Baylor, Miami, Villanova, Oregon, and Missouri, would put the team in a good position heading into conference play.

Senior SF Rayvonte Rice and sophomore PF Malcolm Hill have been huge for Illinois so far. Rice transferred from Drake after his sophomore season to play at his hometown school and he’s been fantastic in his short time with the program. The scary thing about Rice is that he’s been more efficient this year. He scored a lot of points last year, but he took so many shots since he was the team’s only offense. This year, opposing teams aren’t able to load up the lane because they have to respect the shooters at the 3-point arch. He’s had a lot more space to operate as a result. Rice is currently averaging 17.4PPG, 7.3RPG, and 2.1SPG, and 1.8APG.

Malcolm Hill may be the team’s most important player outside of Rice; he’s a complete mismatch on the offensive end. Out of all the returning freshman, Hill was the most likely to make the "sophomore leap" and he’s certainly done so thus far. He’s averaging 14.2PPG, 6.3RPG, and 1.3APG on the season. The sky is the limit for him and I fully expect him to be an All-B1G caliber player as an upper-classman.

2. How is the team coping with the loss of Tracy Abrams? Who is running the show in his place?

For those of you that don’t know, senior PG Tracy Abrams is out for the entire 2014-15 season with a torn ACL that he suffered during an offseason workout; he’ll redshirt and be back next year. He was a huge loss from an on-court leadership and defensive perspective, but Illinois has been coping well so far thanks to Ahmad Starks.

When Starks transferred from Oregon State last year the coaching staff thought he’d be able to play right away thanks to a hardship waiver (illness in family, wanted to be closer to his hometown of Chicago). Well, the NCAA naturally denied his request. What seemed like a curse at the time has actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise after Abrams went down. The senior is OSU’s all-time leading three point shooter and his shooting ability has added a completely different dimension to Illinois’ offense. He’s averaging 8.1PPG, 1.9RPG, and 3.1APG on the year and his assist/turnover ratio of 5.0 is second in the Big Ten for players averaging at least 3.0APG. In addition to Starks, sophomore Jaylon Tate has done a nice job as the backup (3.1APG, 2.78 A/TO); he’s not much of a scoring threat, but he has special court vision.

3. Normally I'd ask what player Illinois fans think they need to stop on Villanova, but the Wildcats have been lauded for their offensive balance - how do you a stop a team with 7 players averaging between 7.5 and 12.5 ppg? Or does this game need to be a shootout for Illinois to win?

That’s a good question. Illinois certainly isn’t a bad defensive team, but in the words of John Groce, they’re not where they need to be yet. The Illini have great defenders on the perimeter in Aaron Cosby, Kendrick Nunn, and Rayvonte Rice so I don’t really expect Villanova’s backcourt to pose too many problems. My concern is down low. Senior C Nnanna Egwu is one of the better defensive players in the entire country, but there isn’t much behind him. Sophomores Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert have been very inconsistent to start the season and there’s been a significant drop-off each time Egwu has left the game. At the 4, Malcolm Hill and freshman Leron Black are capable defenders, but foul trouble (especially with Black) has hindered their defensive success. Illinois has proven that they can bunker-down defensively if need be, but they’ve definitely been a bit inconsistent to start the year.

4. I stumbled upon the State Farm Center renovation project website and was immediately overcome with jealously. How's the project coming, and what has the AD done that has helped and/or hurt the project?

The renovations appear to be going well so far as there haven’t been any set backs. The only real changes on the inside for this season were the updated court and the installation of new, navy blue seats in the upper bowl. Capacity is currently at an all-time high (about 18,000), but it’ll go back down to around 16,000 next year. The outside of State Farm Center is a different story—it’s a war zone right now. Things are starting to take shape in that aspect, but a lot of work still needs to be done this upcoming Summer. When everything is finished, Illinois will have one of the nicest venues in the country.

Athletic Director Mike Thomas has been doing a great job overseeing this operation. It’s my understanding that this project has been talked about for years and years, but he came in and was finally able to get it started. He sold the naming rights of the Assembly Hall (R.I.P.) to State Farm for $60 million and he’s raised a considerable amount from donors. Illinois will be playing their November home games in Springfield next season, but it’s looking like the first game in the newly renovated SFC will be a primetime/ESPN matchup in the B1G/ACC Challenge.

5. What sport is king at Illinois - football or basketball, and why?

Illinois is 100% a Basketball school. Every single fan will tell you that without hesitation, but it’s a bit weird when you consider the facts. Illinois Football is one of the more storied programs in the country; 5 National Titles (’14, ’19, ’23, ’27, and ’51), Red Grange (the greatest College Football player of all-time according to ESPN) played at Illinois, Dick Butkus, Simeon Rice—and the list goes on.

On the Basketball side, Illinois is widely believed to be the best program to have never won a National Championship. The school does claim the 1915 title, but that of course came before the tournament era. The program has gone to 5 Final Fours (’49, ’51, ’52, ’89, and ’05) and has made the NCAA Tournament 30 times. Typing this out is just another reminder that it’s been 10 years since that magical 04-05 run. Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams—what a team.

I think comes down to each program’s consistency. The Football team will make a "legitimate" run a Rose Bowl once, maybe twice a decade while Basketball is typically always at or near the top of the Big Ten.

6. Give us a prediction for Tuesday night's showdown in Madison Square Garden.

This is going to be a fantastic, fantastic game between two tournament-caliber teams. Illinois wasn’t initially supposed to be playing in the Jimmy V Class (I think it was Maryland’s spot), but everyone involved is thrilled that they’ve been given the opportunity—it’s a truly great event at an even better venue. I’m expecting/hoping for an impressive showing from Illinois, but I do however think that the Wildcats will find a way to win despite a scare. Villanova 74, Illinois 72.