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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball visits Illinois

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-illinois-fighting-illini-kofi-cockburn-2021 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats have passed every test so far this season, but admittedly most of those exams weren’t that difficult. That all changes on Saturday when Arizona heads into hostile territory, facing Illinois in Champaign, Ill.

Illinois (7-2) began the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and reached the No. 10 spot before losing to Marquette and Cincinnati in November. Since then the Fighting Illini have won five in a row, including a 2-0 start in the Big Ten with victories over Rutgers—which just knocked off No. 1 Purdue—and Iowa.

This is the 16th meeting between the schools, the last coming in November 2019 when Arizona blew out Illinois 90-69 in Tucson. The teams met seven times between 2000-07, with the UA taking five of those but losing one particularly big matchup in the most painful of ways (WARNING: may trigger flashbacks):

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Arizona is a 1-point favorite. Here’s what to watch for when the 11th-ranked Wildcats (8-0) and Illini battle at 3 p.m. MT on Fox:

A shorter rotation

The UA’s 9-man rotation appears to be down to eight for the foreseeable future due to the absence of forward Kim Aiken Jr., who missed the Wyoming game due to personal reasons. Lloyd did not know when Aiken might return, saying Wednesday “at some point I’d love to have him back with us.”

In the meantime, that means the Wildcats only have three bench players who have seen regular minutes, and those figure to go up. Guard Justin Kier is averaging 20.3 per game, while guard Pelle Larsson is at 17.0 and center Oumar Ballo is at 13.6.

“It’s fine, you can do it with eight,” Lloyd said. “Now we can play a small lineup a little bit more. But you see these seasons are crazy, you get a twisted ankle here, a twisted ankle there, some guy’s back is sore. You’re managing a lot. You don’t get to go through a season in a vacuum.”

Speaking of ankles, both Larsson and starting point guard Kerr Kriisa appeared to tweak one of theirs during the first half at Wyoming, causing both to limp off to the locker room before playing.

“You’re always worried about the next day,” Lloyd said regarding those injuries.

The rebounding battle

Arizona has outrebounded all eight opponents so far, and it is 10th nationally in offensive rebounding rate, grabbing 38 percent of its own misses. Enter Illinois, which is third in offensive rebound rate at 41.5 percent and limits opponents to less than 24 percent on the offensive glass.

“If you don’t rebound you don’t win,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said after Wednesday’s 94-65 win over Wyoming, which saw the Wildcats grab 13 offensive boards and turn them into 20 second-chance points. “It’s that easy. So it’s a point of emphasis every day, it’s a priority in every game.”

Lloyd said rebounding is a key to Arizona’s tempo—“to play fast you have to rebound, you can’t run it without the ball,” he said—and that is reflected in the UA having four starters and one reserve averaging at least 4.5 rebounds per game.

Illinois has six players averaging at least four boards, with center Kofi Cockburn pulling down 11.8 per game including 3.5 on the offensive glass.

“They’ve always had great rebounding teams,” Lloyd said of Illinois. “They pound the offensive glass. It’s going to be a war. It’s going to be a physical battle. It’s probably not going to feel good the whole time.”

‘The Shaq of college basketball’

That’s how Lloyd described Cockburn, a 7-foot junior who in addition to his rebounding numbers is scoring 22.8 points per game and shooting 65.4 percent from the field.

Cockburn, who missed Illinois’ first three games this season while serving an NCAA suspension for selling gear, is the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and a returning consensus All-American.

Since returning to action he is taking 13 shots per game, with more than 65 percent of those at the rim, and he’s getting to the line more than eight times per night.

Shooters shoot

While Cockburn is the main focus, Illinois’ perimeter players also play a big role. Four different guards average at least three 3-point attempts per game, with Alfonso Plummer jacking up 7.2 per game.

Plummer, a Utah transfer who infamously shot the lights out against Oregon State in a Pac-12 Tournament game in 2020 when he was 11 of 16 from 3, has been on fire since stepping into the starting lineup for the injured Andre Curbelo. He’s averaging 24 points over his last four games, hitting 16 of 38 3s along the way.

Fellow senior guard Jacob Grandison is shooting 48.4 percent from 3 and another senior, Trent Frazier, was 3 for 5 from deep last time out at Iowa. Frazier has battled multiple injuries this season, while Curbelo—Illinois’ leading assist man, at 5.5 per game—has been hampered by a neck injury that’s held him out the last four games but he could make his return on Saturday.

A big-game atmosphere

Illinois is averaging 14,110 fans at the 15,544-seat State Farm Center, drawing a season-high 14,907 for a win over Notre Dame earlier this month. The largest crowd the UA has played in front of this season is 13,077 for the Wyoming game, and its only true road game before this (last Sunday at Oregon State) drew less than 4,000 fans.

So to say this will be Arizona’s first time playing in a “hostile” environment is accurate. And it’s just what Lloyd is hoping for.

“It’s great place to play,” Lloyd said of Champaign, where as an assistant with Gonzaga he lost in 2001 and 2011.” It’s got a McKale feel to it. I’m sure they’re going to bring it, and that’s great. That’s the type of games we want to be involved in.”

This is the first of four huge road games Arizona has in a three-week span, with upcoming trips to Tennessee (Dec. 22), UCLA (Dec. 30) and USC (Jan. 2). It’s also the first of four opportunities for Arizona to further establish itself as a legitimate national title contender, while also gaining a ton of street cred for winning on another team’s court.

“There’s nothing—except playing at McKale when it’s full—than going on the road and kicking someone’s ass,” Lloyd said, a sound bite that has definitely raised Illinois fans’ hackles. “Nothing better than that. It’s going to be a huge task. We’re not going in there cocky, we’re not going in there arrogant. We’re going in there knowing this is going to be a great challenge.”