Arizona and Illinois have met for large stakes in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament as well as tangled for holiday bragging rights. On most occasions, both teams’ rosters have featured multiple NBA-bound prospects.
In short, it’s always special when the No. 11 Wildcats (8-0) and the Fighting Illini (7-2) make the effort to get together. The teams will do so again on Saturday afternoon in Champaign, Ill.
“There’s nothing better — except playing at McKale (Center) when it’s full — (than) going on the road and kicking someone’s (expletive),” first-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said Wednesday after his team’s 94-65 win over Wyoming. “There’s nothing better than that. And, you know, it’s going to be a huge task. And we’re not going in there cocky, we’re not going in there arrogant, we’re going in there knowing it’s going to be a great challenge.”
But Arizona also goes in there playing at an elite level.
Blessed with four double-digit scorers in their eight-man rotation, the Wildcats lead the country in scoring (91.6 points per game) and scoring margin (32.1 points per game). Teams are shooting just 34.7 percent from the field against them, which ranks third nationally.
Arizona hasn’t played many tough opponents, but there are a few results that certainly will resonate with Illinois.
In the Roman Main Event championship game on Nov. 21 in Las Vegas, the Wildcats posted an 80-62 win over then-No. 4 Michigan.
On Nov. 12, Arizona thrashed the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley by 54 points. That’s the same team Illinois had to rally to beat by nine on Nov. 26, though it played without Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo and Jacob Grandison.
With Frazier and Grandison back in the lineup — Curbelo continues to recover from post-concussion syndrome — the Illini have reeled off five wins in a row as 7-footer Kofi Cockburn (22.8 points, 11.8 rebounds per game) serves as the hub of offense. Not only does Cockburn shoot 65 percent from the field, he has improved his free-throw accuracy to almost 72 percent.
“It’s going to be a physical battle,” Lloyd said. “They have a player who’s basically the Shaq of college basketball. And then they surround him with shooters. It’s gonna be a war. There’s probably no other way (to describe it).”
Illinois’ five-game winning streak coincides with Utah graduate transfer Alfonso Plummer’s hot stretch. Plummer has scored at least 21 points in each game and averaged 23.4 while shooting 48.9 percent on 3-pointers (23 of 47) and 100 percent at the line (26 of 26). Yet even Plummer knows the key to Saturday’s game lies at the other end of the floor.
“We’ve been practicing really hard, trying to get better on (the defensive) end,” Plummer said. “Because we know on offense we’ve got all these players. We’ve got all this talent. We’re getting better on defense and I feel like we’re going to be way better in the future.”
–Field Level Media