By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: Valparaiso -2
6:00 pm Central – UIC Pavilion, Chicago, IL
Valparaiso Crusaders (0–1, 0–0)
Ugh, Wyoming has left a bitter taste in my mouth following their 76-74 defeat from Texas Southern. It is not that they lost that has me upset, but the fact that they were up 19 points at halftime and lost is disheartening. Oh well, that is the agony/beauty of college basketball. December is here, so why not start the month out on a positive note!
Valparaiso will square off with a familiar foe on Tuesday night. The Crusaders, one-time rivals with the Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Flames in the Horizon League, have dominated the recent series history between the two teams. Valparaiso is currently on a ridiculous 17-game win streak over the Flames. The two teams matched up with one another at least two times a year, until Valparaiso left the Horizon League to join the Missouri Valley Conference in 2017. The Horizon League is not quite at the strength it used to be at when the likes of Butler and Loyola-Chicago were mainstays until 2013. Since Butler’s magical 2011 NCAA Tournament run to the National Championship game, the Horizon League has not recorded a NCAA Tournament win. The Missouri Valley Conference on the flipside has had two teams from their conference reach as far as the Final Four since 2013. Just a little history between the two slightly intertwined conferences. Back to the preview.
Valparaiso comes into this contest with a 0-1 record, a 6-point defeat at the hands of the Power-5 Vanderbilt Commodores. The Crusaders led by as many as five points in the second half, but Valparaiso went 4-for-8 from the charity stripe in the game and had a four-minute scoring drought in the second half. Legitimate causes for concern coming into the 2020 season were who would pick up the scoring now that Javon Freeman-Liberty is gone (transferred to DePaul this off-season). Donovan Clay seemed to be the best fit to assume that leading scorer role. The sophomore guard averaged 9.4 points per game as a freshman last season for Valparaiso. Ben Krikke (6.7 ppg last season) and Mileek McMillan (8.8 ppg last season) are going to be depended upon to contribute more consistently for the Valpo offense this year as well. Daniel Sackey may not be a main scoring option for the Crusaders, but he can be a “stat-sheet-stuffer” point guard for them instead. Sackey had six points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals for Valparaiso against Vanderbilt. Valparaiso had great success dishing the ball out for assists on the offensive end last season (15.2 assists per game; 29th in Division-I). The Crusaders also are a team that has active hands defensively, generating 7.7 steals last season (57th in Division-I). Teams who are careless with the ball can find themselves in an upward battle against Valparaiso.
Illinois-Chicago Flames (2–0, 0–0)
The UIC Flames have lit up their MAC competition this season with wins over Northern Illinois and Central Michigan. Poor pun? Perhaps, but nothing ‘poor’ can be used to describe the way UIC has opened the 2020 season. First year head coach, Luke Yaklich, picked up a win on opening night for college basketball after overcoming a 22-point deficit. During the ’16-minute rally’, the UIC Flames were scorching hot from the field going 17-for-24, seven of those shots coming from three-point land. A few nights later, the Flames jumped out to a 43-31 lead at halftime over the Central Michigan Chippewas. The Flames almost let it slip from their grip, but they ended up squeaking out the two-point victory by a score of 74-72. The Flames had 19 turnovers in the game opposed to the seven turnovers by CMU, but the Flames were hot from trifecta land, going 7-for-16 on three-point shots. The Chippewas were an abysmal 2-for-18 from three-point land. UIC was great last season at defending against the three-point shot, with teams only shooting 29.0% from beyond the arc (14th in Division-I). This season is obviously still very early, but UIC has had success this season in defending the three-point shot as well (opponents shooting 17.9% from beyond the arc; 13th in Division-I).
Idaho Vandal transfer, RayQuawndis Mitchell, has been a key contributor for the Flames this season. The junior guard is averaging 17.5 points per game this season and he has shown a nice touch from behind the arc (8-for-15). The Chicagoland native and former Ohio Bobcat, Teyvion Kirk, was a key scorer for the Bobcats during the 2018-19 season (14.1 ppg), but he has taken on more of a “stat-sheet-stuffer” role to open the 2020 season for UIC. Kirk is averaging 8.5 points per game, 7.5 assists per game and 7.0 rebounds per game. I think the guard will sacrifice a dip in his scoring to see his team keep up their winning ways. Braelen Bridges has been a nice addition for Yaklich off the bench this season, scoring 13.5 points per game and pulling down 8.5 rebounds per game as well. UIC came up short in the Horizon League Tournament last season, but if the Flames keep playing the way they have to open the 2020 season, UIC might break its 16-year NCAA Tournament drought.
UIC has perhaps had lady luck on their side a little bit in the two games they have played this season. Does this mean UIC is not a good team? Certainly not. I do think that they very well could be 1-1 or 0-2 right now (KenPom has the Flames ranked 51st in terms of Luck this season). I believe that the Flames have more reliable scoring options than Valparaiso does at this point in the season. I also like a team that has the ability to get hot from three-point land. The UIC Flames can be a dangerous team if they continue their surge on three-point scoring. The 17-game win streak for Valparaiso over UIC has to happen at some point, why not let it be 2020 where that becomes a reality. I am going to back the UIC Flames +2 in this game.
Jack’s 2020 CBB picks: (3-2; all picks are one unit) A $100 bettor has a profit of $77