On Saturday the Illini welcome head coach Tommy Lloyd and the Arizona Wildcats to the State Farm Center.
The No. 11-ranked Wildcats will enter as the highest-rated non-conference opponent the Illini have played at home since Wake Forest and Chris Paul during the magical 2004-05 season. Two years ago, the Illini visited Arizona’s McKale Memorial Center when Arizona topped Illinois 90-69.
The two programs first met Dec. 27, 1966, and Arizona has won 9 of their 15 matchups.
But many Illini fans recall the 2005 NCAA Tournament matchup when Deron Williams and the Illini staged a remarkable comeback to advance to the Final Four.
So Far This Season
Arizona entered the season under new leadership in Tommy Lloyd, after Sean Miller was fired following 12 seasons with the program. Lloyd seems to be leading the program in the right direction, too.
Arizona sits at No. 11 in the AP poll and is one of only nine undefeated teams left in the country at 8-0. On Wednesday, the Wildcats defeated another undefeated team in Wyoming 94-65. They have two other solid victories against Witchita State and Oregon State.
But the most notable win on the season came over another Big Ten school in Michigan. The Wildcats routed the Wolverines 80-62 in Las Vegas on Nov. 21. Through its eight games, Arizona leads the country in scoring, averaging 91.6 points.
The Wildcats are riding on a lot of momentum right now, and their coach has them hungry for more.
After Wednesday’s win, Lloyd said: “There's nothing better except playing at McKale when it's full or going on the road and kicking someone’s ass.”
If the Illini need any locker motivation, they have it now. But with the way this team is playing right now, Illinois will face its biggest test of the season Saturday night.
Benedict Mathurin (0) has been the Wildcat's best player so far this season. Through eight games, Mathurin is averaging 17.0 points on 48% shooting in 29.9 minutes. On the season he is 16-47 from three (34%). At 6-foot-6, Mathurin rebounds fairly well for a guard with 6.6 rebounds per game. This guy has NBA talent, and many expect him to be there next year after his hot start to the season. Just last week Mathurin posted his season-high of 29 points against Oregon State. He doesn't get himself in foul trouble and takes care of the ball with low turnovers.
Kerr Kriisa (25) is a 6-foot-3 guard from Estonia who has started all eight games as a freshman. On the season he averages 11.0 points on 37.5% shooting in 26.0 minutes. It is obvious just by looking at stat sheets what Kriisa role on the team is. He leads the team in three-point attempts at 64, 17 more than anyone else. On the season he has shot 35.9% from beyond the arc.
Two other guards for the Wildcats Dalen Terry (4) and Justin Kier (5) play significant roles. Terry is the starter between the two only averaging 5.5 points in 23.8 minutes. Kier on the other hand is averaging 8.4 points off the bench in 20.1 minutes per game.
Azuolas Tubelis (10), a 6-foot-11 forward from Lithuania, is another freshman who has earned eight starts in his first year, along with the third-highest total minutes on the team at 201. Tubelis has shown the most production statistically in the frontcourt. The team’s second-leading scorer, Tubelis averages 15.8 points on 61% shooting. For his size, however, he only averages 6.5 rebounds.
Christian Koloko (35) is a 7-foot-1 center and will likely give Kofi Cockburn the best matchup he has seen yet this year. The sophomore from Cameroon started in 19 games last season for the Wildcats and all 8 so far this year. In 22.8 minutes per game, Koloko is averaging 15.8 points and a team-high 65.2% from the field. Although, on a team that doesn't always rebound the best, Koloko leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game.
Oumar Ballo (11) is a 7-foot center from Mali who comes off the bench to relieve Koloko. On the year Ballo only averages 13.6 minutes, but with All-American Kofi Cockburn on the court Ballo might be expected to give Koloko breaks throughout the night. In his 13 minutes, Ballo averages 6.6 points on 58.6% shooting and 5.3 rebounds.