UIC is still searching for its first win against a Division I opponent with Illinois State coming to town Wednesday in the renewal of an in-state rivalry that has not been played since the 2010-11 season.
What you should know about Illinois State (4-6, No. 174 KenPom):
After nearly reaching the NCAA Tournament last season, Illinois State is now struggling. The Redbirds have played a tough schedule, with four of their losses coming against teams in KenPom’s top 60. However, they have struggled against easier competition as well.
In its most recent game, Illinois State nearly lost at home to a rebuilding Murray State team. The Redbirds also barely edged Morehead State at home and trailed D-II Quincy in the second half before pulling away for a 10-point win.
The Redbirds have some talent and deserve to be the favorite in this matchup, but it will be winnable for UIC.
The player to watch for on Illinois State is senior guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell. Akoon-Purcell was a preseason All-MVC First Team selection. He is averaging 16.2 points on 46.9 percent shooting this year. The 6-foot-5 guard is a dangerous weapon because he can score from anywhere on the floor. He is struggling beyond the arc so far, but he was moderately successful there last season at 33.3 percent.
What you should know about UIC (1-6, No. 330 KenPom):
The onus will be on UIC’s ball handlers Wednesday to combat Illinois State’s defensive pressure. The Redbirds force turnovers in 24 percent of their defensive possessions. The Flames have struggled to take care of the ball this season with giveaways in 21.6 percent of their offensive possessions.
Freshman wing Dikembe Dixson‘s success or failure in this area will be crucial. While Dixson has proven his worth as a scorer and rebounder, 26 percent of his possessions end in turnovers. In six different games, he has been responsible for four or more miscues. The 6-foot-7 newcomer had six turnovers in each of the last two games, and those were against Illinois and UCF, whose defenses are not known for mistakes.
The other key for this game is free throw shooting. Illinois State is one of the worst foul-shooting teams in the country at 58.4 percent. That’s huge for UIC because the Flames have a defensive free-throw rate of 50.8 percent, ranking No. 338 in the nation. (Free throw rate is a measure of free throws attempted per field goal attempted.)
Putting Illinois on the foul line 35 times Saturday was the kiss of death for UIC, even with the Illini only converting at an average 68.6 percent rate. Even if the Flames continue to foul often against the Redbirds, it may not give their opponent as big of an advantage.
How to watch, listen and bet:
Start time: 8 p.m. CT
TV: ASN/CSN Chicago
Line: Illinois State -8
Sagarin: Illinois State -9
KenPom: Illinois State 77, UIC 72 (70%)