It's been two years since Illinois' heartbreaking NCAA Tournament loss to the Miami. The 6-0 Fighting Illini will finally have a shot at revenge on Tuesday night when they travel to Coral Gables to take on the Hurricanes in their Big Ten/ACC Challenge game. Let's give a warm welcome to Jerry Steinberg of State of The U as he joins us to preview the game.
1. The #17 Hurricanes are off to a hot 7-0, including wins at #8 Florida and Charlotte (x2). What are your expectations for this season?
SOTU: Going into the season, I was expecting a 20-22 win squad that would be a bubble team come Selection Sunday. Much of that forecast was due to the fact that although very talented, the roster consisted of 9 players who had never work a Hurricanes uniform before. I was expecting early struggles and late success. However given how well the team has come together 7 games in, they might be better than I initially prognosticated. This team looks the part of a top 4-6 ACC Contender and an NCAA Tourney squad with a decent seed right now.
2. It's been two years since Illinois and Miami met in the second round of NCAA Tournament. Do the Hurricanes return any players from that team?
SOTU: One and only one. C Tonye Jekiri was a raw freshman back then, who backed up the likes of Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, and Julian Gamble. Now, not only is he the last remaining member of that group, he is UM's only available player over 6'8. Jekiri is off to a great start this year, averaging 8.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, and 2.6 blocks. Illini fans need not worry about Shane Larkin, he is now on the Knicks.
3. It's obviously early, but Kansas State transfer PG Angel Rodriguez has been playing like one of the best players in the country as he's been averaging 14.9PPG, 3.3RPG, and 4.4APG. What should Illini fans expect out of him on Tuesday?
SOTU: Angel is an absolute ferocious competitor. That's what stands out most about his game, in my opinion. He is an excellent on the ball defender (2.7 steals per game as well), and does a great job getting his teammates involved by penetrating and finding the open man. But as evidenced in the big win over Florida, he is a cold blooded shooter who never hesitates to take the big shot either. In a nutshell, Rodriguez is just a very good basketball player all around, and a leader.
4. Rodriguez isn't the only player the Illini need to worry about as junior SF Sheldon McClellan is averaging a team-high 16.7PPG and 6.1RPG. Can you comment on the Hurricane's supporting cast/depth?
SOTU: McClellan might be the most gifted player on the roster. In fact Coach Jim Larranaga recently told the media that McClellan was the best offensive player he has coached in 30+ years, which is very high praise. He can score off the dribble, his jumper is very smooth, he is a beast out in transition, and with a reported 44 inch vertical he finds any number of ways to beat you with his athleticism as well. He's also been a pleasant surprise as a rebounder, defender, and distributor. McClellan seems content to give the ball up and not force things when the defense takes away his first look. Overall he is simply put, another outstanding player. In the new Miami "Big Three" the third star for the 'Canes has been Belgium born sophomore G Manu Lecomte. The 5'11 Lecomte is averaging 13.3 ppg on a remarkable 57% from the floor, including 51% from deep. He has a lot of Rodriguez' attributes to his game as well, and has blossomed into a pesky on the ball defender. His best skills however are his quickness and his shooting. He starred over the summer as the MVP of the U-20 Championships in Europe, so this really shouldn't be a huge surprise. Nonetheless, his play has been more stellar than I think even the most optimistic Miami fan expected. As mentioned above, the 7 footer Jekiri is also having a great year. Off the bench the freshmen, Omar Sherman (6'8 stretch 4 who can score down low or hit a three), James Palmer (silky smooth 6'4 combo guard), JaQuan Newton (relentlessly penetrates), and RS frosh Deandre Burnett (think Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson) are all competent options that Coach L can turn to. UM is especially deep in its' back court. Perhaps not so much up front, but overall they have a very good supporting cast.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois so far? Which player(s) on our side do you view as the biggest threat in this game?
SOTU: I have yet to see the Illini in action this season, but I am very much looking forward to it. I saw Rayvonte Rice play some last season and came away impressed, although he did appear to be a little streaky as a shooter. Looks like he has improved that quite a bit. Growing up in N.J. I was a Seton Hall fan before I attended the University of Miami. So I always keep a close eye on the Pirates. For that reason I am very familiar with Aaron Cosby's game. Rice is definitely going to put some numbers on the board, UM really needs to limit the scoring of guys like Cosby as well as Malcolm Hill. Also the match-up of Rodriguez and Ahmad Starks (21 to 3 assist to turnover ratio?) should be a lot of fun. Most of all this should be a very exciting contest because both teams it appears as guard heavy. The difference in the game might be who gets the better of the battle of the bigs between Jekiri and Nnanna Egwu.
6. What are your predictions for both this game and the B1G/ACC Challenge?
SOTU: Illinois presents Miami's toughest challenge to date. Yes, they beat UF, but that was a very short-handed Florida squad. But I do like Miami in this game, because 1) It is in Coral Gables and 2) I think the combination of Lecomte, Rodriguez and McClellan is a little better than Rice/Cosby/Hill. The way to beat these 'Canes is to punish them on the post and on the offensive glass. I do not see a team that comes in and tries to beat them with a lot of guards, succeeding. Even a team with guards as good as Illinois. Miami squeaks this one out, 71-67.
As for the rest of the Challenge:
FSU over Nebraska - Coach Ham's team is due for a break out and the game is in Tallahassee.
Rutgers over Clemson - two struggling teams but the overall talent favors the Knights.
Michigan over Syracuse - The Cuse needs more outside shooting. Trevor Cooney is too inconsistent.
Louisville over Ohio State - Can't wait to watch this one. Montrez Harrell is a beast, but D'Angelo Russell looks like the real deal. This one could go either way.
Indiana over Pitt - Yogi Ferrell leads the Hoosiers to victory.
Purdue over NC State - Mackey Arena is a touch place to play, plus A.J. Hammons is due for a big game. Keep an eye on PG Cat Barber and the Pack though.
Minnesota over Wake - just a better team. Wake will get better in time with Danny Manning at the helm.
Wisconsin over Duke - just barely. Drools over the battle down low between Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky.
Notre Dame over Michigan State - biggest upset of the challenge. Jerian Grant is for real and the Irish have a lot of fire power on the perimeter overall.
UNC over Iowa - Marcus Paige leads the way to victory.
Virginia over Maryland - UVA is #7 in the country and still somehow feels underrated.
Georgia Tech over Northwestern - GT has some issues at the PG spot, but they have a lot of size down low.
Penn State over Virginia Tech - Buzz Williams needs some time to upgrade that Hokie roster.
Thank again to Jerry for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to check out State of The U for more coverage as we approach Tuesday night's game.