Illinois plays its final non-conference game prior to the resumption of the Big Ten season when it hosts Grand Canyon on Saturday afternoon. The Fighting Illini have been off for a week since topping Missouri in St. Louis on Dec. 23, while the Antelopes are coming off their highest-scoring effort of the season, a 100-74 rout of Morgan State in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
Senior guard Joshua Braun leads the way for coach Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon squad, averaging 14.1 points - including 37 3-pointers. Illinois turns to the inside for its scoring leaders, with junior forwards Leron Black and Michael Finke pacing the team with 14.4 and 11.6 points per game, respectively. Guard Aaron Jordan has been a hot scorer off the bench for coach Brad Underwood, scoring 11.3 points while shooting 60 percent from 3-point range. Freshman guard Trent Frazier also has been a spark in a reserve role, as he scored a career-best 22 points in the win over Missouri and is averaging 1.7 steals on the season.
TV: 4 p.m. ET, No TV
ABOUT GRAND CANYON (10-4): Majerle is excited about the recent emergence of freshman center Alessandro Lever, who has moved into the starting lineup and shown some nice moves around the basket. The 6-10 Italian recorded eight points and a team-high nine rebounds in 21 minutes versus Morgan State, giving the Antelopes a post presence even against a zone defense. Lever admits his confidence has been growing in recent games, and it has shown in his play as Grand Canyon hopes to use him as a post passer as well as a scorer in Western Athletic Conference action.
ABOUT ILLINOIS (9-5): One of the biggest takeaways from the win over Missouri was how well the Illini’s reserves played, outscoring the Tigers’ bench players 27-0. Underwood has tried to keep some scoring on the bench at the start of the game so he can have some fresh shooters later in the contest, and it has worked, with Jordan, Frazier and Kipper Nichols (9.1 points) all averaging over nine points in reserve roles. Illinois’ bench has outscored opponents in 12 of its 14 contests this season, giving Underwood more options and fresher players as the games go on, which should be a key factor in Big Ten Conference play.
1. Illinois ranks sixth in the country in turnovers forced (19.6 per game) and has registered 17 or more in 10 games this season after reaching that mark only five times last campaign.
2. Frazier has been heating up of late, leading the team in scoring over the last four games with an average of 17.8 points to go with three steals and 43.5 percent shooting from 3-point range.
3. Finke’s younger brother, Champaign Central senior G Tim Finke, committed to Grand Canyon last month.
PREDICTION: Illinois 80, Grand Canyon 70