Men’s basketball welcomes Fighting Illini for NIT opener

After a devastating 55-36 loss to American University in the Patriot League Tournament Championship Game that bumped it from NCAA Tournament consideration, the Boston University men’s basketball team will look to salvage what is left of its season when the Terriers take on the University of Illinois Wednesday night at Agganis Arena in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

BU (24-10) earned an automatic bid into the NIT by winning the Patriot League regular season title. The Terriers earned a No. 7 seed from the committee, while Illinois (19-14) was given a No. 2 spot.

Normally, the higher-seeded team would receive home-court advantage in the tournament, but because Illinois’ home court of State Farm Center is undergoing renovations, BU was awarded the opportunity to host an NIT contest for the first time.

Since the start of the season, this year’s BU team looked to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2010-2011 campaign, when the team defeated Stony Brook University in the America East Tournament to advance.  The team’s seniors and tri-captains — forward Dom Morris, guard Travis Robinson and guard D.J. Irving  — were freshmen the last time the team made the tournament, so this trio sought another berth to the big dance in their final year with the Terriers.

Although BU and its seniors had an otherwise impressive 2013-14 campaign in its inaugural season in the Patriot League, the team did not attain its goal, falling just short. Even though Watson and Irving each put up strong seasons to earn Patriot League All-First Team and Second Team, respectively, the team could not solve American (20-12) during the title game.

BU coach Joe Jones said despite the heartache the Terriers suffered last week against the Eagles, they will be ready to go against Illinois.

“I think anytime you get a chance to play a program like Illinois from the [Big Ten Conference,] as a competitor you want that challenge, it’s a great challenge for us,” Jones said.  “I think they really want the challenge of playing in this game.”

Looking at the Terriers’ last game, the box score notes an uncharacteristically low field-goal percentage from the team, particularly the 1-of-17 mark from beyond the 3-point arc.   For the season, BU averaged eight makes per game from 3-point land, falling well short of this mark against American.

The Eagles’ zone defense completely stalled the BU offense right from the start of the game, forcing the Terriers to take long, low-percentage shots. The team also had difficulty playing as a cohesive unit with offensive flow, something that Jones has stressed all season.

“We just didn’t pass the ball,” Jones said. “We had guys open, we just didn’t pass the ball to each other. That was just the most frustrating thing, we really pride ourselves on making the extra pass and playing together, but we got in the moment and really struggled to play together.”

Come Wednesday, BU’s ability to play against a strong Big Ten opponent in Illinois will come down to tight defensive play leading to chances at the other end. The Terriers frequently generate offense from their ability to make stops and get out in transition to create open scoring opportunities, mainly from Irving and sophomore guard Maurice Watson Jr. The lack of defensive stops coupled with poor passing against the Eagles diminished BU’s offensive opportunities.

If the Terriers can play with strong defensive intensity like it has done in the past, Jones said the team it can pull the upset against the Fighting Illini.

“Nothing can happen if we’re not getting stops, that’s the big thing,” Jones said.  “We got to get stops first, rebound the ball, and if we can do that first, we’ll be in good shape.”

Much like the Terriers, the strength of the Fighting Illini lies in their play of their guards. Juniors Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams are the team’s leading scorers, dropping 15.5 and 11.0 points per game, respectively.

With a 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame in comparison to Watson, who stands at 5-foot-10, and Irving who is exactly six feet tall, Rice appears to cause a matchup problem for the Terriers. In order to limit Rice’s scoring and size advantage, Robinson, who is one of BU’s top defenders and stands at 6-foot-5, may see more playing time when the team does not use a zone defense.

During this week at practice, Jones said he attempted to get his team to erase the disappointing performance against American from its collective memory and mentally prepare for the team’s final home game of the year against Illinois.

“It was gut-wrenching, the first couple of days, guys were really hurting,” Jones said. Our practices have been pretty spirited, I wouldn’t think from being in practice we had just lost, especially [Monday’s] practice.  They’ll be ready to go on Wednesday.”

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