The NIT Tipoff anticipated pairing unbeaten teams when No. 19 West Virginia meets Illinois at Barclays Center on Thursday.
The Mountaineers (3-0) head to Brooklyn, N.Y., having done their part with a series of lopsided victories, but on Monday the Illini (4-1) squandered a 10-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation en route to an 84-80 loss in overtime to Winthrop.
“It couldn't have went any worse for us in that 10-point run,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Everything's got to go wrong for us and right for them for that to happen. We had a chance to close and didn't.”
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Forward Malcolm Hill, who is building on a season in which he became the first Illini player to record 600 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists, has become more perimeter-minded this campaign. He's making 48 percent of his 3s while averaging 20.6 points and a team-best 7.8 rebounds.
Guard Tracy Abrams (12.8 ppg), forward Michael Finke (12.4 ppg) and center Maverick Morgan (10.4 ppg) give Illinois plenty of offensive punch, and forward Leron Black scored 10 against Winthrop in returning from a four-game suspension.
But after committing 22 turnovers during the upset loss, Illinois encounters the trapping, full-court harassment of “Press Virginia.” Bob Huggins' team, among the national leaders in forcing takeaways the past two seasons, has averaged 27 during wins over Mount St. Mary's, Mississippi Valley State and New Hampshire.
“We know that they're big on pressuring,” Illini guard Jaylon Tate said. “We've just got to get good possessions.”
“There's things we've got to get cleaned up,” Abrams said. “ASAP.”
In a team stocked with gritty defenders, Mountaineers guard Jevon Carter has emerged as the primary pest. Huggins this week called Carter perhaps the best on-ball defender he has ever coached.
“He makes tremendous plays almost every day,” Huggins said.
Carter's 10.7 points are tied for second on the team behind forward Nathan Adrian (13.3 ppg, 8.0 rebounds). Forward Esa Ahmad (10.7 ppg, 5.3 rebounds) is becoming more involved offensively this season, and backups Lamont West (10.7 ppg) and Teyvon Myers (10.3 ppg) have posted impressive numbers during blowouts.
West Virginia's previous two games at Barclays were disasters. An 81-66 loss to Michigan preceded a 13-19 finish in 2013, and the Mountaineers were stunned 70-56 by Stephen F. Austin in their NCAA opener in March.
“Yeah, I'm sure I won't mention anything about that to the players,” Huggins cracked.