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Illinois expert previews the Arizona game and makes a score prediction

Nicholls v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

After cruising past NAU in their opener, the Arizona Wildcats will face stiffer competition Sunday when they host the Illinois Fighting Illini at 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.

Illinois went 12-21 last season but has NCAA Tournament hopes this year, thanks to a large number of returning players and freshman Kofi Cockburn, a massive 7-footer who was a top-50 recruit and is averaging 16.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game on 67 percent shooting.

So far, the Illinois have beaten Nicholls State and GCU, though both games were close, especially the former which required overtime.

Illinois was one of the worst rebounding teams in the country last year, but it has dominated on the glass this year, posting the third-best offensive rebounding percentage and 11th-best defensive rebounding percentage in the country.

Other than that, the Illini’s numbers don’t jump off the page. We wanted to get more insight on them so we caught up with Andrew Pastorek of The Champaign Room, our sister site.

Here is our Q&A.

What are the expectations like for Illinois this year? Is this the year it will finally return to the NCAA Tournament?

Well, we have some, which is nice. It’s been cool to see some of the well-respected college hoops insiders—Andy Katz, chiefly—trumpet the Illini as a team to pay attention to. Illinois has been irrelevant for much of the last decade, so the fans are ready to be excited again. Most fans are expecting a top-six finish in the B1G. I believe the Illini will be an NCAA Tournament team come March, and 20 wins is not an unreasonable goal.

Illinois only won 12 games last year, so what went wrong?

Part of the problem was their insane non-conference schedule. The Illini faced Gonzaga, Iowa State and Xavier in Maui, plus Georgetown, Notre Dame, Missouri, UNLV and East Tennessee State. And the Big Ten expanded to a 20-game league schedule. They had virtually no time to work out any kinks. Trying to go through that kind of gauntlet with seven or eight new guys and a second-year head coach would be a tall order for any team.

Speaking of tall, Illinois also wasn’t very big and got killed down low against teams with size. Its starting power forward, Giorgi Bezhanishvili (who is 6-foot-9), was pretty much playing as a center all season long out of necessity and would miss good chunks of games due to foul trouble. Opponents shot nearly 200 more free throws than Illinois. Also, there were way too many games where they’d have extended scoring droughts. It seemed like every time I’d turn on a game they’d give up a 15-0 run.

Why was that Nicholls game so close and how concerning is that game?

In short, the Illini played a very sloppy game. They committed 23 turnovers and only shot 19-29 from the foul line. Giving up 47 points in the second half is definitely a bad look. And, remember what I just said about scoring droughts? Nicholls went on a 16-0 run to force overtime. The main concern is that they had a hard time finishing off a bad team from a one-bid league. They likely can’t overcome those kinds of mistakes against a more worthy opponent (like Arizona, for instance). Ultimately, I’m not that worried about it. Illini fans can put away the torches and pitchforks for now.

What can we expect from a Brad Underwood coached team?

You can expect to be annoyed. Illinois will give max effort and work you to death. It became a punchline last year because almost every B1G coach would say something like “Illinois is the best 0-6 team in the country” because they were so tough to play against. Brad Underwood likes to play fast—ideally he’d like a shot to go up in less than 10 seconds— which also sometimes works against them because they’ll run themselves into turnovers, offensive fouls, or dumb shots. Oh, and Underwood yells a lot. I doubt he sweats more than Sean Miller, but I bet he’s louder.

Who are the main Illinois players Arizona fans should know about?

Ayo Dosunmu (averaging 15 points and 4 assists) is the “star” of the team and likely heading to the NBA next year. He’s a terrific point guard, though he’s had kind of a slow start this season. Bezhanishvili is a great source of energy for the Illini and absolutely came out of nowhere to become one of the team’s most important players. Another guy to watch is freshman center Kofi Cockburn. He’s 7-feet, 300 pounds, and has recorded a double-double in his first two collegiate games.

Do the Illini have an overlooked X-factor?

I’d say Andres Feliz. He’s a bulldog on the floor and embodies the toughness that Coach Underwood is looking for. The Illini have leaned on him to take over late in games.

Score prediction for Sunday’s game?

Obviously, Illini fans are gassed up for this game, and a victory would be very satisfying for a program that’s lacked many signature wins recently. That said, I don’t see it happening.

Wildcats 81, Illini 67.