Analysis: Freshmen dominate on way to blowout victory over Illinois
Arizona men’s basketball fans heard the hype all summer surrounding the freshman class making its way to McKale Center this season. In their first matchup against a big-time opponent, they showed the hype was justified.
The Wildcats cruised to a 90-69 victory over Illinois, led by the freshman trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, who combined for 62 of the Wildcats’ 90 points.
That group, a frantic pace and an impressive second half on defense highlight some of the things that stood out on the night.
Youth is served
Mannion finished with 23 points and 9 assists on the night, showing why he was a consensus top-10 recruit in the country coming into the season as he came out much more aggressive than in Arizona’s first game against Northern Arizona on Wednesday, when he scored just 9 points.
“I try to prepare the same way for every game,” Mannion said when asked about his level of play increasing for prime-time matchups. “Tonight, shots were falling, it felt good. We had a great atmosphere and four or five guys in double figures. We have a great group of guys and always make the unselfish play.”
Mannion has played with teammate Josh Green prior to Arizona, with the two playing AAU basketball the past three seasons. Their connection showed, with Green scoring 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting, highlighted by a couple of connections from the duo in transition.
“I think we feel more comfortable,” Green said. “We’re still freshman two games into our career. Every single game we’re going to get more comfortable and trust each other more.”
Nnaji, who was coming off of a 20 point performance against NAU, finished with 19 points against an Illinois frontcourt that included 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn. The strong performance came as no surprise to Mannion, who has been seeing it for months.
“He’s been doing it since summer,” Mannion said. “Every practice it seems like. To a lot of guys watching now it's a surprise, but it’s kind of what we’ve been expecting.”
Arizona under head coach Sean Miller in year’s past has typically been one to grind it out on defense and look to beat their opponents in low-scoring affairs.
With Mannion now running the show and the amount of athletes who like to get out in transition, the ‘Cats offense has been the story, averaging 90.5 points through the first two games.
“When you have depth like we do and some skill level like we do, I think it is better when we are able to get up and down,” Miller said. “On the road and against different styles, you’re not just going to be a team that can outscore that other group. You have to do both, and we want to be able to win different ways.”
“We’ve been focusing on playing fast since we got here,” Mannion added. “The last couple weeks it’s been focused on even more. When we do that, we’ve got guys that can make the right plays and great passers and when we’re playing unselfish and fast, things go well for us.”
While the offense stole the show, that doesn’t mean the Wildcats didn’t do their thing on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Arizona forced 22 turnovers on the night, turning that number into 20 points and 25 fastbreak points as well. The Wildcats also held the Fighting Illini to just 38 percent shooting in the second half compared to 55 percent in the first.
“They hit us with three-straight 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the game, yet only finished with five total,” Miller said. “Our overall 3-point defense was better in the second half, but we fouled a little bit more. If I judged our defense for the full game, we had our ebbs and flows. We had our good moments, and we didn’t.”
“Coach Miller is a defensive coach and we came here for a reason,” Green said. “I love the defensive side of things, we can continue to lock-in on defense and try our hardest on the court. We love it and we’re all-in for it.”
Arizona will be back in action Thursday against San Jose State at McKale Center, with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m.
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