Arizona men's basketball hosts Illinois for an early-season test
For the first time since 2007, Illinois and Arizona will play in a college basketball game together as Illinois comes to Tucson on Sunday night. However, it is the games from the early 2000s that fans will remember, especially the game from 2005.
Both teams broke each other’s hearts in the early 2000s. First in 2001, Arizona took down the Illini to get to the Final Four. Then in 2005, Illinois came back from a 14-point deficit with 3:20 left in the game to get back to the Final Four.
While the game tonight doesn’t have the same ramifications, it will still be a good early season test for both teams. Arizona comes in at 1-0 after beating NAU by 39 points. Illinois had a scare in its first game, going to overtime against Nicholls State but then in overtime, they won by eight points. The Fighting Illini then went to Phoenix and beat GCU in what former Head Coach Rick Pitino has called “the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced.”
Illinois is returning most of their team from last year but only won 12 games last season. They also bring in the No. 46 recruit in the country in Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn is a 7-foot center from Jamaica and was the best player for the Fighting Illini against GCU. It’ll be a big test for the Arizona front-court to see how they deal with the seven-footer and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, a 6-foot-9 sophomore.
While they put up 91 points against NAU, they didn’t get much production from Chase Jeter and Ira Lee. Zeke Nnaji had a huge game with 20 points to make up for Jeter and Lee. But the Wildcats will need to have the junior and senior step up, not just for this game but moving forward during the season. The other two freshmen in the starting lineup, Nico Mannion and Josh Green, both had solid games as they combined for 19 points.
The back court matchup should be very good as well. We all know Mannion and Green are supposed to be first round draft picks, but Ayo Dosunmu from Illinois is also projected to be a first round pick. Andres Feliz is another guard that Illinois leans on as he was the leading scorer in the season opener.
The difference in this game could be the benches. Arizona has 10 players that play regular minutes and could get good playing time while Illinois really only has seven or eight players that play regularly. Stone Gettings, Max Hazzard, Jemarl Baker Jr. and Lee are going to have to perform when they come in. Christian Koloko should also see big minutes to keep Chase Jeter and Zeke Nnaji refreshed.
When visiting teams come to the McKale Center, they seem to play a level above what they are usually capable of. While I expect the same to happen for Illinois, I don’t think it will be enough and Arizona should win by double digits.
Arizona 81 - Illinois 70
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