In front of something of a vintage McKale Center crowd, the No. 21 Arizona Wildcats passed an early season litmus test with flying colors, when they dismantled the Illinois Fighting Illini 90-69 Sunday night.
The two teams traded blows in the first half — which ended with a Max Hazzard three as the game clock expired to put the Cats up 39-38 at the break — before the UA’s freshman trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji took over on both ends in the second half to put the game away.
At one point in the middle of the second period Arizona went on a 15-0 scoring run to secure the dub. And while Illinois isn’t the best team in the Big Ten, it was still a huge early season victory for Arizona against a Power-5 school that will surely give the young team confidence moving forward.
Our full recap can be found here and here’s a breakdown of some of the major positives and negatives from the night.
Remember when everyone was stressed about Nico’s “slow” start to the season after a couple below standard performances against Chico State and NAU?
Well, those people were silenced Sunday.
With his parents in attendance, the point guard scintillated in his second collegiate game (against stiffer competition mind you), finishing with 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, 9 assists and 4 rebounds.
He got after it on defense too, forcing two steals, and wowing the near-capacity crowd with several remarkable passes.
If he delivers more of this type of play, Mannion should have no problem living up to the monster hype he was generating before the year and Arizona will be all the better because of it.
10/10 performance from him.
The Fab Freshmen
Mannion wasn’t the only freshman who balled out against Illinois, as his classmates Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji were nearly as good.
Green went for 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting, while hitting an impressive four threes. Nnaji built on his memorable 20-point debut vs. NAU with a 19-point performance on 9-of-12 shooting.
Both he and Green grabbed five boards a piece.
In the end, the Cats’ three star freshmen finished with 62 of the team’s 90 points and they were easily the difference in the game when the UA went on their game-winning run in the middle of the second half.
It was a close game in the first half, as the Illini came out of the gates hot (they hit three straight threes to start the game) and they finished the opening period shooting at 56%, but Sean Miller’s team came out with a new defensive energy in the second, limiting the Illini to just 38% shooting from the field.
While the offense was certainly humming, it was the impressive second half defensive performance that really guaranteed the win.
Arizona looked mostly good offensively on Sunday, but after the game one area that Miller said he wished the Cats had been better at was taking care of the ball.
The Wildcats turned it over 16 times against Illinois, and while that number was somewhat neutralized by the 14 steals and 22 turnovers the UA forced, the 11-year head coach will definitely want to see his team turn it over less going forward.
The Fighting Illini are known for being a fast-paced team and they proved that Sunday night against the Wildcats.
They consistently looked to push the ball on Arizona and found a lot of success doing so - getting easy layups by simply beating the UA down the floor.
The Cats did look solid defensively in the half court, creating 22 turnovers on the night, but Illinois best moment came when they were on the break, and this could be something to watch for if opposition coaching staffs think they can run on Miller’s team to generate points.
As Arizona started to pull away in the second half and Illinois couldn’t score in the half court, the one way the Illini stayed somewhat in the game was getting to the line.
The Wildcats finished with 23 personal fouls and Illinois ultimately shot 20 free throws (making 14 of them).
It didn’t come back to hurt them in this game, but much like the Wildcats 16 turnovers, Miller will want to see the number of fouls and free throws his teams allows shrink in the games to come.