All eyes will be on Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek’s gait when No. 4 Marquette takes the court at No. 23 Illinois for a Gavitt Tipoff Games marquee matchup Tuesday night in Champaign, Ill.
Kolek, the reigning Big East Player of the Year and preseason Associated Press All-American, limped to the locker room with 8:06 left in Marquette’s 95-65 win over Rider Friday night and did not return.
“He turned his ankle,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart said after the game. “He stepped on someone’s foot. The status update from him was, ‘I’ll be fine.’ But he did turn his ankle, and right away he subbed himself out.
“We’ll see how it responds. He’ll get treatment. Knowing Tyler, he’s a guy that he’ll find a way to be on the floor when he needs to be on the floor.”
If this storyline doesn’t sound familiar to Marquette and Illinois fans, it should. Two Novembers ago, Kolek wrenched his knee in the game prior to No. 10 Illinois’ Gavitt Tipoff Games visit to unranked Marquette.
“I couldn’t really straighten my leg,” Kolek said at the time. “I couldn’t really walk.”
But after three days of treatment, Kolek delivered 12 points, five assists and five rebounds in 37 minutes as Marquette earned its first headline win of the Smart era with a 67-66 upset of the Illini.
This time around, Illinois seeks the upset on its home floor. The Illini (2-0) and Golden Eagles (2-0) are both defensive-oriented teams loaded with athletic wings and bigs.
Illinois, which limited its first two opponents to 33 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent on 3s, made 11 straight stops down the stretch Friday night in a 64-53 home win over Oakland.
“The lineup we had out there late was big,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “It makes you hard to shoot over. I think our athleticism … I think (fifth-year senior) Terrence (Shannon Jr.) is as good a perimeter defender as there is in the country. He proved that (Friday night). There’s no separation. You start watching how hard he sprinted to get through screens – and then he’s strong.”
Marquette, which limited its first two opponents to 38 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent on 3s, loves to pressure all over the court and force turnovers. Against an Illinois team that doesn’t have a true point guard, this could be the difference.
“On the defensive end, there’s a lot of possessions where we do, like, 80 to 90 percent of the things we need to do right,” Smart said. “And that’s not good enough. We’ve got to do 100 percent, but the exciting thing is that we’re nowhere near our upper limits and we’re going to keep working and grow.”
Tuesday’s matchup triggers a rigorous stretch for both squads. The Illini face battles with Top 10 foes Florida Atlantic and Tennessee within three weeks. Marquette goes from Illinois to the Maui Invitational, where the Golden Eagles open with UCLA, and No. 1 Kansas possibly awaits the winner.
“A lot of these games you go into and you’ve got good players and a good program and so do they,” Smart said.
“It’s going to be a war and a battle down to the very end and it’ll probably be close in the last four minutes. We’re thankful — grateful — to get a chance to be part of those wars.”
–Field Level Media