Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
A couple of teams that have generally played well, but escaped national attention are the focus of my preview today, as #57 Illinois Chicago (5-2, 1-0) face #69 Georgia Tech (5-1).
The UIC Flames had a tough start to the season, sandwiching losses to Bradley and DePaul around a win over Northern Iowa, but have gone 4-0 since, including an impressive 20-point win at Vanderbilt. Georgia Tech has its own win over Vandy, while the Yellow Jackets’ only loss came in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge against a Penn St. team off to a good start.
This looks like it will be a really interesting contrast in styles, as the two teams take very different approaches to getting their points. UIC is most effective outside, and it shows in their shooting, as they are excellent from behind the arc and at the free throw line, but their two-point percentage is poor, and they shoot nearly the same percentage from two as from three. The offense would be really efficient if they could take more three pointers, rather than having misses from inside, as they commit few turnovers and are decent on the offensive glass. As it is, the offense is solid, but nothing more. Georgia Tech has hung its hat on defense so far in the season, a departure from the last couple of seasons, and closer to the style of the ’04 and ’05 NCAA Tournament teams, though it’s somewhat unlikely it’ll stay at those levels. The Yellow Jacket defense has had no core strength so far, as they have stopped shots, forced turnovers and grabbed boards at respectable levels, adding up to a strong defensive whole. They are good shot-blockers, and given UIC’s woeful interior scoring, this could be a real advantage for them.
Offensively, Georgia Tech is a fast-paced team that almost totally ignores the three, currently sitting dead last in the nation in the percentage of attempts that come from three, the only team that’s taken take less than 19% of shots from behind the arc. Given their poor percentages both from three and at the line, this doesn’t seem an unwise decision. The good news for the Yellow Jackets is that they are good at scoring inside, with the added bonus of capturing a lot of offensive rebounds. Considering their high pace and inside focus, they are also very impressive in ball control, not gifting their opponents many turnovers. Georgia Tech’s play down low creates a favorable matchup with UIC, as the Flames defend quite poorly inside, and don’t do great on the defensive glass. UIC should try and make this a game played on the perimeter, as they force a poor three-point percentage and a lot of turnovers from their opponents.
It probably won’t last, but there’s a decent statistical argument that Gani Lawal has been the best forward in the ACC not named Hansborough. The 6-8 sophomore is seeing double the minutes he did last season, and has thrived so far, shooting over 60% from the field, ranking third in the ACC in points and leading the ACC in rebounding, though with more minutes per game than players like Hansbrough and Singler have had. Still, Lawal, who broke 15 points just once last season, has twice scored over 25, including a career-high 34 in the Penn St. defeat. He came down to earth somewhat against Vandy, and the Jackets must hope that doesn’t end up as a sign for the rest of the season. He’s joined inside by the only current senior starter, 6-10 Alade Aminu, who is also shooting above 60% from the field, and has averaged nearly 9 rebounds a game, and junior Zach Peacock, who is the least effective of the three main inside options. There are questions about the Jackets’ guard play, as they have precious little experience after senior Lewis Clinch was declared academically ineligible (though this may be cleared up in time for today’s game). In Clinch’s absence, highly-touted freshman Iman Shumpert has stepped up, and while Shumpert’s shooting has not been good, his second-in-the-ACC 6 assists a game, along with a 2.0 A/TO ratio have been excellent from such a young player. He’s been joined by Maurice Miller, who is posting similar numbers in assists, but really needs to stop shooting, as he’s at just 25% from the field, and 0-17 from three. Lance Storrs has been an effective backup guard, while Bassirou Dieng and Brad Sheehan can provide help inside, but the Jackets are a fairly shallow team who would be greatly helped by Clinch’s return.
UIC have an excellent two-man inside-outside combination in Josh Mayo and Scott VanderMeer, two seniors who are the heart of this Flames team. Mayo’s numbers in particular have been outstanding, as he is shooting over 60% from behind the arc on a fairly large number of attempts, and he enters this game on a 18-24 run from three. He provides some assists and steals as well, but the Horizon’s leading scorer doesn’t need to do much beside shoot to be a very effective player. 7-footer VanderMeer’s shooting percentage is a fair bit lower than Mayo’s, which has got to be a concern, but the big man makes up for it with his defensive presence, as he leads the Horizon in both blocks and rebounds, and he will have to have a big game and avoid foul trouble for the Flames to win. Guard Robert Kreps is the team’s second leading scorer, and has been a solid second shooting option on the perimeter. The other starters are Spencer Stewart, who has been a terrible shooter, but knows his job is just to move the ball around, hence his leading the conference in assists, and Rob Eppinger, a 6-8 forward who isn’t particularly notable. The main player coming of the bench is Tori Boyd, a 6-5 forward who has had a couple of big scoring games, and gets to the line pretty well. This is another fairly shallow team, and they lose a lot when VanderMeer or Mayo is out.
These are two teams that have looked pretty good this season, as UIC seem serious Horizon contenders, while Georgia Tech seem closer to the high end of Paul Hewitt’s best case scenario than many expected. While UIC have the ability to win this game, I think that Georgia Tech’s inside play will cause serious havoc for the Flames, and that they will pull off the home win.
Winner: Georgia Tech Margin: 3-7
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.