Preview: South Dakota at Illinois

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[December 19, 2015]  SportsDirect Inc.
 Illinois really has started to hit its stride, winning three straight as it enters a non-conference contest with visiting South Dakota on Saturday. The Illini have some big games ahead - a rivalry game with Missouri and their Big Ten opener against Michigan - but they can't afford to look past the Coyotes, who come in off an emotional double-overtime victory over Milwaukee on Thursday.

Illinois has been playing better despite some injuries, with the constant being leading scorer Kendrick Nunn, who is averaging 19.8 points. Malcolm Hill (17.1 points, 5.3 rebounds) has been the other consistent threat for coach John Groce, who is getting some solid play inside from freshman Michael Finke (9.5 points) as well. South Dakota's success has been a team effort as five players are averaging 10 points or more, led by guard Tre Burnette's 13 per game. One thing the Coyotes don't have is a lot of size, with Eric Robertson being their tallest starter at 6-8.

TV: 3 p.m. ET, ESPN3

ABOUT SOUTH DAKOTA (7-4): One thing with which coach Craig Smith is impressed about his team is its ability to keep its cool in close games and make plays. That ability was on display in the double-overtime win over Milwaukee, as the Coyotes were able to come from behind time and again to knock off the Panthers. "We made some big-time plays down the stretch to win this one," Smith told reporters. "We have played in so many close games the past two seasons. With the exception of a few, we have learned to win those games."

ABOUT ILLINOIS (6-5): Injuries continue to plague the Illini, who likely have starters Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr. out for the season, while sophomore Leron Black was downgraded from day-to-day to out indefinitely by Groce on Thursday with continued trouble with his surgically repaired knee. With Thorne and Black missing, Finke has stepped into the starting lineup and played 27 minutes in each of the last two games, while junior Maverick Morgan is seeing more time as well. Morgan played 13 minutes in each of the last two games and is averaging six points and 2.5 rebounds.

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1. South Dakota ranks 37th in the country in assists per game with 17.2.

2. Nunn and Hill form the highest-scoring duo in the Big Ten this season and rank second among tandems in the six major conferences.

3. Illinois is second in the Big Ten in turnovers per game (10.5) and turnover margin (plus-3).

PREDICTION: Illinois 82, South Dakota 71

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