Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- This year’s slate of BracketBusters games may only have a couple of games with any serious NCAA Tournament implications, but there are still a number of less-hyped games that should be fun to watch. The one I’m most interested in features #41 Niagara (21-7, 12-4) hosting #31 Illinois St. (22-5, 11-5).
Illinois St. ran through its very weak non-conference schedule undefeated, and had a promising 3-0 start to Valley play, before dropping tough games at Bradley and at Indiana St. After that, it picked up some good victories, but had troubles maintaining a consistent level. The Redbirds have managed to find some form recently, 5-1 in their last six games, but face a brutal stretch to end the season, with this game followed by games against the co-conference leaders, Northern Iowa and Creighton. Niagara didn’t really have any notable non-conference results; it lost at Villanova and beat USF in its only two power-conference games. Some early stumbles against Marist and Iona in the MAAC season put the Purple Eagles out of the conference race, and they saw a seven-game win streak snapped on Wednesday at Rider. They can’t catch Siena for the MAAC title, but are pretty safely locked into second place.
The Redbirds’ offense is one of the nation’s most three-dependent: Illinois St. takes more than 40% of its attempts from behind the arc, and hits over 38% of these attempts, one of the Valley’s best percentages. It’s reasonably effective inside as well, but when the outside shot isn’t going in, the Redbirds have trouble scoring. They aren’t great on the offensive glass, but they will have a lot of chances to get rebounds against Niagara, as the Purple Eagles are among the country’s worst on the defensive boards. Despite this weakness, Niagara boasts one of the MAAC’s best defenses, as it forces a lot of turnovers and does a very good job defending the inside. It doesn’t defend the three-point shot that well, which could be a big help to the Redbirds’ chances.
Niagara is an excellent example of an offense that doesn’t make a high percentage of its shots, but still manages to be efficient. The Purple Eagles shoot quite poorly from behind the arc, and not very well inside either, but they get back 39% of their own misses, easily the MAAC’s best. Niagara also avoids turnovers, again the best in the conference at this, and gets to the free throw line quite often, where a respectable 71% success rate earns it a lot of points. The battle on the boards should be an interesting one, as Illinois St. is 7th in the nation in defensive rebounding, and will cause a lot of problems for Niagara’s ability to get second chance baskets. The Redbirds keep opponents off the free throw line effectively, which will cause more trouble for the Purple Eagles. Illinois St. also defends the three-point shot better than any other Valley team, though it won’t make a huge difference in this game.
The Redbirds are led by junior guard Osiris Eldridge, who plays the second-most minutes in the conference. Eldridge is a solid shooter, 36% from behind the arc, who also chips in around six assists and a steal-and-a-half a game. He isn’t the leading scorer, though, that honor goes to senior Chamberlain ‘Champ’ Oguchi, who’s also a solid three-point shooter, and does well on the defensive glass. Eldridge is joined in the backcourt by Emmanuel Holloway, another good shooter who can distribute the ball effectively. He’s needed to step up in his duties of late, as junior college transfer Lloyd Phillips, who led the team in assists and was the best three-point shooter, has not played since taking a leave of absence last week. Phillips returned to the team before its Wednesday game, but didn’t play, and it’s not clear if he’ll play tonight. In his place, Landon Shipley has stepped into a starting role, and so far has done pretty well, shooting and distributing as well as Phillips. Dinma Odiakosa is the fifth starter, and the Nigerian may be the Redbirds’ most efficient player, hitting 64% from the floor and leading the team in rebounding. Brandon Sampay also gets a lot of minutes inside, and while his shooting isn’t great, Sampay does provide another good option on the boards.
Niagara features a strong one-two combo in junior Tyrone Lewis and senior Bilal Benn. Lewis, a 5-11 guard, leads the team in scoring, and is one of the national leaders in steals, but struggles with his shot from two-point range, where he hits just 35%. The 6-5 Benn is more of an inside force, leading the MAAC in rebounding, but is also the team’s best three-point shooter, though at 33.7% that’s not exactly high praise. The most effective Purple Eagle, however, is neither Lewis nor Benn, but 6-10 senior Benson Egemonye. Egemonye shoots 56% from the field, and is a strong rebounder. He’s also the Eagles’ primary shot-blocker, but his real value lies at the free throw line; Egemonye is among the national elite in getting to the stripe, and makes a solid 71% once there. Niagara’s starting five is rounded out by a couple of guards that have struggled with their shots, Rob Garrison and Anthony Nelson. The bench doesn’t provide many minutes, with the primary contributor being forward Demetrius Williamson, a decent scorer who rarely turns the ball over.
I haven’t had a great record in recent days, especially with road teams, but I’ll pick another to win this one; Illinois St.’s three-heavy offense will cause Niagara trouble, while the Purple Eagles won’t do a great job of generating the offensive rebounds they need to keep their scoring going.
Winner: Illinois St. Margin: 2-6
-- 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.