The Arizona Wildcats are flying high right now, leading the nation in scoring and winning their first eight games by an average of more than 32 points. But the challenges are about to get a lot tougher, starting with Saturday’s game at Illinois.
The Fighting Illini (7-2) began the 2021-22 season ranked 11th in the Associated Press poll but are currently unranked. They’ve won five in a row, though, and are close to getting their entire team together after injuries and suspensions thinned their rotation early on.
To better understand Illinois, we reached out to Tristen Kissack of SB Nation sister site The Champaign Room. Here are his fastidious answers to our sloppy questions:
Arizona Desert Swarm: After a shorter-than-expected NCAA Tournament run last March, as well as the departure of Ayo Dosunmu to the NBA, Illinois was picked third in the Big Ten this season. Was that too high, too low or right where it should be?
Tristen Kissack: “This was probably right about where it should be. Coming into the season, the general consensus was Illinois, Purdue and Michigan in that Tier 1 group, and I don’t think you could’ve gone wrong with any order of those three. Obviously, Purdue has started to distance itself from everyone else, but I still think this Illinois team is a top-3 team in the Big Ten. Michigan and Illinois have both had some struggles early on, but the Illini seemed to have found their groove as of late.”
Looks like injuries have really had an impact on this team so far in 2021-22. Where do things stand with guards Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier?
“Re: Andre Curbelo, no one knows! Honestly, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to his status. What we do know is that he suffered a concussion early on in the final exhibition game of the year. He came back for a period, then seemed to be on a minutes restriction, and now we haven’t seen him in multiple games. He could be back Saturday, he could be back in two months. Really, no one knows. If I had to make a guess about his availability this weekend, I’d say he’s more than likely not suiting up.
“Trent Frazier suffered a shoulder injury earlier on in the year, then was hit with a knee injury a few games later, but seems to be all right now. He played 30-plus minutes against Iowa earlier this week, so barring anything sustained in practice over the last 72-ish hours (it really wouldn’t surprise me with this team if he has), he’ll be starting.
“Overall though, health has been a major concern for this team all year. We really weren’t sure who was going to suit up last week with Notre Dame because a lot of guys on the team were battling a non-COVID illness, but that seems to have worked its way out of the system.”
Former Utah guard Alfonso Plummer appears to be tearing it up for the Illini of late. What’s been working well for him and how does he fit into the plans when everyone is back and healthy?
“Plummer was hardly getting minutes to start the year, and then was thrown into a starting role really out of default because he was one of the only guys who was healthy. To his credit, he’s made the most of them. We were told all offseason about his shooting abilities and how he was the best shooter Brad Underwood has ever coached, and he’s lived up to that over the last several games. He’s got all the confidence in the world behind the arc. Frankly, if he gets even the slightest window, the ball is going up. He’s yet to miss a free throw all year and has shown that he can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim when called upon.
“As far as his role when everyone’s healthy, I wouldn’t want to disrupt the groove he’s found himself in. Maybe that means running a smaller lineup of Curbelo-Frazier-Plummer, but it might also mean that Curbelo becomes the spark off the bench that he was so good at providing a year ago. Regardless, Plummer should be seeing starter type minutes until he falls into some sort of funk.”
Kofi Cockburn had 9 points and 7 rebounds at Arizona in his third career game in 2019. Since then he’s been an All-American once and is in good shape to be one again. How has he developed into one of the best big men in the country, and how do you think he’ll fare against Arizona’s sizable frontcourt?
“Kofi is so much more polished around the rim than he was two years ago. When he started, it was pretty clear that he was just going to out-bully everyone else down low, and it worked for the most part! But since then, he’s really cleaned up his back-to-the-basket game. He’s got a nice baby hook, and he loves the drop step. He’s not going to face you up and shoot over the top of anybody, but once he has position established down low, you might as well start jogging down to the other end of the floor. Another element that he’s had to add this year is passing out of double teams. Opponents have started digging down or trapping him baseline, but he’s shown that he’s capable of finding the open shooter on the perimeter or even dishing it off to cutters.
“I’m really intrigued to see how he fares against (Azuolas) Tubelis and (Christian) Koloko. Koloko looks like he has the length, but I’m not sure he necessarily has the size and strength to bang with Kofi. He’s arguably the most dominant player in the country, so he’s going to get his. It’ll just have to be about damage control. I can’t think of a time in the last two years when a team has really been able to ‘shut him down.’”
What would you say is Illinois’ biggest flaw?
“Boy does this team turn the ball over. With Curbelo sidelined, there’s no real true point guard. Frazier slotted into that role as a freshman when he joined the team 18 years ago, but handed those duties over to Ayo when he got there the following year. So he really hasn’t had to tackle ballhandling responsibilities in a while. As a team, they turn it over to the tune of 16 times per game, though. Iowa threw a fullcourt press at them earlier in the week, and it looked like everyone just completely forgot how to play basketball. If Arizona gets Illinois sped up, it could get ugly. But if the Wildcats are content with letting Illinois walk the ball up every possession and limits the turnovers, then this one will stay competitive.”
Prediction time: Does Illinois knock Arizona from the ranks of the unbeaten or do the Wildcats pick up a huge resume-boosting nonconference road win? Give us a score prediction.
“Man, this is a tough one. Illinois doesn’t match up well with Arizona on the wing at all. Kofi is going to be Kofi, but Illinois will need Plummer and someone else to step up to hang around in this one, but I just don’t know who that third guy is right now. I’m going to take Arizona by a few possessions, 86-78.”