The Illini hosted the No. 11 Arizona Wildcats in what turned into a highly entertaining, fast-paced game from start to finish.
The bit of travel turbulence that the Wildcats faced in getting to Champaign didn’t impact their play, as they played a complete game on both ends. Illinois continued to play its game from the perimeter, but the usual interior dominance wasn’t there on this day thanks to Arizona’s length and size in its frontcourt.
This is the type of game the Illini needed, as they will be facing premier bigs every night in conference play. While still short handed without dynamic point guard Andre Curbelo, it was encouraging they put up a tremendous fight down to the final minutes. Hopefully, the Illini can take some lessons from this and improve as non-conference play winds down.
It was evident from the jump that this was going to be gritty fist fight. Arizona took a page from Iowa’s playbook and frequently deployed full court pressure and double teams against Cockburn in the post and the ball handler at the top of the key. Their pressure strategy, combined with their length at every position, made it difficult for the Illini to find passing lanes into the post or establish any type of rhythm to their dribble drive game.
Curbelo’s continued absence really hurt in this one, as the Illini lack a true point guard most capable of handling this pressure. The Wildcats forced 16 Illini turnovers in this game, due mostly to their relentless defense, and converted these into 25 points, which in and of itself was likely the difference in the game. Handling pressure confidently, better interior passing, and improved dribble penetration for better offensive opportunities are clear areas for improvement for the Illini if they want to find success in the Big Ten and beyond.
Still, the stars for Illinois really showed up in this one. Despite losing the points in the paint battle 42-16 — a rarity for this Illini team and would normally signal a sure blowout for most teams — the Illini were able to punch back with an amazing three point shooting display from Grandison, Plummer and Frazier, who combined for 15 made threes to help Illinois win the perimeter shooting battle 45-21.
Frazier caught fire with 11 straight points to spur a 19-0 run for Illinois in the first half. Plummer also went on a similar 8-0 individual run in the second half, but any momentum the Illini gained offensively was countered by star Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin, who finished with 30 points and 5 threes of his own.
Arizona center Christian Koloko went toe to toe with the All-American Cockburn and got the better of that matchup defensively for most of the game, holding the Jamaica native to just 5-of-15 shooting and recorded 4 blocks to boot.
Despite the loss, this matchup had all the makings of a thrilling second weekend game in the NCAA Tournament. This game should only serve to improve this talented Illini team for a rugged Big Ten schedule.
Andre Curbelo’s health will continue to be a significant point of discussion in the days and (hopefully not) weeks ahead. The Illini’s ceiling this season is unlikely to be reached without his dynamic playmaking and ability to direct the offense. Many of Illinois’ recent woes — poor interior passing, lacking dribble penetration on offense, and inability to handle pressure — could be alleviated with effective play from him on the floor.
The Illini also need to get more from fellow starters Coleman Hawkins and Da’Monte Williams, who both finished with no points and became non-factors on that end of the floor. Both found themselves committing poor fouls defensively that blunted Illinois’ momentum at various points in the game. Growth from freshmen Goode and Melendez will be key to develop a deeper rotation needed to sustain momentum in these grinder games against talented, deep teams like Arizona.
The Illini will be fine and will still experience plenty of success this season, but the same issues of valuing positions, getting better ball handling and passing, and being more methodical in their offensive approach continue to come up time and again for this team. If the Illini want to solidify themselves as a top contender, they need to find answers to these persistent shortcomings.