After knocking off Nicholls State on Tuesday and GCU on Friday, the Illini cap off their weekend with a matchup against the No. 21 Arizona Wildcats.
After a couple of disappointing seasons the past two years, Arizona is back and loaded with the No. 6 recruiting class in the country. FBI scandals have cast a shadow over the prestigious program, but with the roster on hand for the upcoming season, it looks like Arizona will be dancing once again come March. This game is one that many Illini fans have circled on their calendar. An early out of conference clash on the road... Oh, and there is a bit of history between these two programs as well. (Thanks D-Will)
Players to look out for?
This year’s team is a mix of very talented freshmen, transfers, and also returning role players/fringe starters. The two main headliners of Arizona’s incoming recruiting class are Nico Mannion and Josh Green. Both top 15 recruits in the country and potential lottery picks when the NBA draft comes calling next summer. Mannion is a do-it-all point guard, an elite shooter and possesses great playmaking ability. Green is a great athlete himself and will be able to beat just about anyone off the dribble this season. Slowing these two young guards down will be key if the Illini want to walk out of Tuscon with a win.
Arizona also grabbed graduate transfer Max Hazzard who was an instrumental part of UC-Irvine’s upset win in the tournament over Kansas State last year. He gives the Wildcats experience and should be a steady presence with so many young players on the roster this year.
Arizona’s front-court is very thin with returning center Chase Jeter who averaged 10.9 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game. Consistency will be key for Jeter this upcoming season. Rounding out the starting five is the No. 40 recruit from last year’s class, Zeke Nnaji. Nnaji is another uber athletic player and also led the team in scoring against Northern Arizona in Arizona’s only game thus far. Expect to see heavy minutes from Ira Lee, Cornell transfer Stone Gettings, and transfer Dylan Smith also.
Keys to the game?
This matchup will be an interesting one and a game that I personally can’t wait to watch. For once, the Illini will actually have the experience factor and they need to use that to their advantage. Illinois’ three starting guards should be able to give the two freshmen guards from Arizona fits. I give a big advantage to Illinois in the front-court. I expect Giorgi to have his best game of his sophomore campaign. Offensively, Illinois just needs to take care of the ball. A performance like Nicholls State will get them blown off the floor against a super talented Arizona team. Ayo Dosunmu vs. Nico Mannion will be one of the best one-on-one matchups you see all year. Two potential lottery picks who can both score the basketball. I give the edge to Ayo for this one, solely based on the fact that this is only Mannion’s second career collegiate game.
This game will come down to the wire. I’m not comfortable picking Illinois to win in any sport against any team, but I have a gut feeling the Illini will make a statement on this trip out west. I expect Trent Frazier to shoot way better than his season opener, Ayo to control tempo, and Giorgi to rebound after a rough start. Illinois 76, Arizona 71.