After a victory over American University on Saturday afternoon, the 7-1 Illinois Fighting Illini are gearing up for their toughest test of the year. The Illini will be in New York City on Tuesday night to take on the #6 Villanova Wildcats in the annual Jimmy V Classic. Let's give a warm welcome to Chris Lane of VU Hoops as he joins us to preview the game.
1. At 8-0, Villanova has wins over both VCU and Michigan and is currently ranked #10 in the AP Poll and #6 in the KenPom rankings. What were fan expectations like coming into this season?
The OOC schedule is solid, but not spectacular, so most fans knew this team should realistically be spending a lot of time in the Top 10 this year given how much talent they had coming back from last year's team. I think the offense is right on track for where we thought it would be, but the defense has been the biggest bright spot. The expectations were essentially 1) win the Big East and 2) do much better in the postseason given last year's flameout, so we're a long ways off from that.
So far so good, but the Big East looks a lot better than expected. So Jay Wright's preseason prediction of 'better team, but maybe not as good of a record' seems like it has a pretty good chance to look correct at the end of the year.
2. Illinois fans aren't too familiar with Villanova Basketball. Who are the team's major contributors?
The two guys who will get most of the headlines are seniors Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston. Because the team has so much balance, both players are scoring way less than last year thus far. Hilliard is a plus shooter, passer, and when he's on his game will attack the basket relentlessly. He's also the catalyst of Villanova's 1-2-2 press and uses his length well to force turnovers. Pinkston is a matchup nightmare. At 6'6" 235 pounds, he can overpower most wings, and he's usually too quick for the traditional forward.
Dylan Ennis has been the breakout player of the year so far. The junior transferred in from Rice, was simply not very good last season, and has been nothing short of a revelation since this season started.
3. The Wildcats have been extremely balanced offensively so far as 7 players are averaging at least 7.5PPG. Can you comment on the team's depth? Is there a set "rotation", or will they present different looks throughout the game?
Villanova's rotation stretches as deep as 9 players, but you probably won't see very much of sophomore forward Darryl Reynolds unless Daniel Ochefu is in foul trouble or Villanova has built a sizeable lead. Most nights, a 7-man rotation dominates the minutes. Kris Jenkins is the best outside threat on the team, and he and Josh Hart have the ability to provide instant offense off the bench. Hart's energy is his best asset - he's a maniac on the boards and a pest on defense. Freshman guard Phil Booth is starting to see more time, so that rotation might become an 8-man group more often than not going forward.
Jay Wright really likes to lean on his upperclassmen, so expect a healthy dose of the starting lineup (2 seniors, 3 juniors) while Hart/Jenkins see starter-like minutes. Wright views his players as interchangable, so you'll see a lot of 'smaller' lineups with the only true 3-guard, 2-foward lineup happening when Ochefu and Pinkston are on the floor together.
4. If the Illini want to come out of this game with a W, they'll need to win the front court battle. Is that area a strength or weakness for Villanova?
If there's one glaring weakness, it's the overall lack of size on the roster. Daniel Ochefu has been very good this year, and Darryl Reynolds is a serviceable backup. After that it starts to get iffy. Josh Hart, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston are strong enough to play defense in the post but they haven't seriously been tested yet.
It'd be a good idea for Illinois to test Ochefu, and hopefully get him in to foul trouble. Villanova hasn't had to deal with that yet, and has done a good job going on the offensive so far this year and making teams play the way they want to play.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois so far? Which player(s) on our side do you view as the biggest threat?
(hey, you guys have seven players scoring over 7 ppg too!), though I'm a bit unsure just how much they've been tested so far. Baylor looks like it could end up being a solid resume win, but Miami was the big test thus far and they seemed to shut the Illini offense down. Though having not seen the game I don't know if that's the case, or if it was just an off night.
Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill are really the two guys that jump out at you immediately. Both Rice and Hill are putting up a ton of points and doing it efficiently from both inside and outside the arc. Those rebounding numbers are impressive too, and with their size it should be a good battle with their counterparts on 'Nova. Jay Wright teams have a tendency to let good shooters get hot, so hopefully the Villanova guards are up to the task.
6. What's your prediction for Tuesday night's game?
For whatever reason, Villanova always seems to struggle offensively at Madison Square Garden, which is odd given that they play there 2-3 times per season. However, these Wildcats are locked in right now offensively and defensively and aren't relying on getting hot from deep to do their damage offensively.
I'm anticipating a tightly contested game, but I think Villanova's experience shows them the way to victory. I've got Villanova taking it 74-67 courtesy of some late-game free throws that ice the victory.
Thank you again to Chris for taking the time to answer our questions! You can follow him on Twitter at @chrisjjlane. Make sure to check out VU Hoops for more coverage as we approach Tuesday night's game.