Illinois, which returns 85 percent of its scoring from last year’s 12-21 team and is expected to push for an NCAA Tournament bid, has picked up narrow wins over Nicholls State and GCU to begin the season. Arizona destroyed NAU 91-52 in its opener thanks to a momentous night from freshman Zeke Nnaji, who scored 20 points in 20 minutes.
Arizona has not played Illinois since 2007, and here are some things to watch for in the rematch.
With no concrete timetable for Devonaire Doutrive’s return, there is a possibility that the sophomore guard plays Sunday. How likely is that? Who knows. Arizona has been very vague about the nature of his suspension.
If he does play, it will be interesting to see if he starts. Sean Miller referred to him as a starter after the Chico State game, but not being able to suit up in that exhibition or the NAU game could have him in line for a bench role until he gets back into the swing of things. Arizona could use his scoring and rebounding in what figures to be a close game. KenPom projects Arizona will win 76-70.
It is worth noting that Doutrive has been training with the Wildcats, who have extremely competitive practices, so it’s not like he will be super rusty when he returns, whenever that may be.
Ayo vs. Nico
Sunday should be a terrific test for Nico Mannion, who will be matched up against Ayo Dosunmu. Like Mannion, many project the Illinois point guard will be a first round pick in June. The 6-foot-5 sophomore was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team after averaging 13.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game last year.
Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo projects Dosunmu will be the 22nd pick in the NBA Draft, only 11 spots below Mannion.
“Expect a leap in production from Dosunmu after a solid freshman season, with Illinois hoping to return to the NCAA tournament and relying on him to make plays,” Woo wrote. “His size, composure on the ball and ability to defend both guard spots create some role-player potential at the next level as he matures. He defends with energy and might be able to make his living on that end if things break correctly.
“Dosunmu shot a respectable 35.2% on 5.7 three-point attempts per game last season, but will have to prove that number is for real, as jump shooting hasn’t been his strength, and his all-around efficiency could be better. He’s deceptively athletic off the drive and doesn’t take too many bad shots, leaving some upside as he figures out where his points come from. If Dosunmu takes a leap offensively, he should be able to play his way into the first round.”
Kofi vs. Arizona’s deep frontcourt
Miller has talked about the versatility Arizona’s frontcourt offers and how it can match up against many different styles.
We’ll see if that includes a massive 7-footer. Illinois freshman Kofi Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn) checks in at 300 pounds and has been tremendous to start his college career, averaging 16.5 points and 12.5 rebounds on 67 percent shooting. He was a top-40 recruit out of the prestiguous Oak Hill Academy.
“Practically impossible to move out of position,” reads Cockburn’s 247Sports scouting report. “Not the quickest, but does have quality footwork. Not a rim protector, but a positional defender. Much more effective defending the interior than on the perimeter. Finishes with touch inside, but has limited range. Productive rebounder with sure hands.”
Arizona has a lot of length in Zeke Nnaji, Chase Jeter and Christian Koloko, but none are particularly wide, so Cockburn could have his way when it comes to establishing favorable post position.
Ira Lee seems to be Arizona’s most physical big and maybe he will play a key role in this one. The good news for Arizona is Illinois has been a lousy 3-point shooting team (28.1%), so it might not get burned too badly if it goes to extreme measures to contain Cockburn.
Handling ball pressure
Illinois loves to run under third-year coach Brad Underwood.
Illinois played at the 52nd-quickest pace last season, and a lot of it stems from an aggressive defense that isn’t always that effective (fouling was a huge issue last season) but forces a lot of turnovers.
In Underwood’s first season, Illinois was fourth in the country in opponent turnover percentage. Last year, it was 24th.
Arizona has not faced a defense like that yet, so it will be a good measuring stick for guards like Mannion, Max Hazzard and Jemarl Baker Jr. and how well they handle ball pressure.
The Illini are prone to dry spells in the halfcourt—Nicholls went on a 16-0 run to force overtime—so limiting their transition offense will be critical.
Illinois has gotten eviscerated at the 3-point line this season, allowing Nicholls to shoot 40 percent and GCU to shoot 42 percent.
Considering how poorly the Illini have shot the 3, that could be an area where the Wildcats have a major edge. Guys like Mannion, Hazzard, Baker, Dylan Smith and Stone Gettings need to be opportunistic when they get open looks, just as they were against NAU.
Then again, Illinois has traditionally played good 3-point defense under Underwood—opponents only shot 33 percent from distance last season and 34.5 percent the year prior—so maybe its struggles are just the product of small sample size and will get sorted out soon.
Defending the 3 was a point of emphasis for Arizona against NAU after it allowed Chico State to make 10 3s in an exhibition.
First big test
With so many newcomers, an early game against a major-conference team will give us a realistic look at what kind of team Arizona actually is at the moment.
Can Nnaji repeat his NAU performance against Big Ten talent? Will Mannion fare well against a physical specimen like Dosunmu? Will Arizona’s mid-major transfers rise to a major-conference level? Is Josh Green’s perimeter defense the real deal?
Playing a formidable opponent will bring us closer to answering some of those questions, for better or worse. There is also the chance that some flaws, like rebounding or perimeter defense, are exposed.
McKale Center atmosphere
McKale Center was tame against Chico State and NAU. Neither game was close to a sellout (relatively speaking) and the fans who were in attendance weren’t engaged in the action. (I’m looking at you, ZonaZoo.)
People have complained about the Wildcats not host Power-5 teams regularly enough during the non-conference season, but they delivered this time and now UA fans need to be loud and proud and live up to their end of the bargain.