Game 6: December 2, 2006
Hall of Fame Challenge at Phoenix, Arizona
Illinois is in somewhat of a rebuilding phase after the graduation of super guard Dee Brown. It's been difficult to assess the Illini so far this season due in part to the many new faces getting minutes as well as the team's rather suspect November schedule that saw them play the likes of Austin Peay, Jackson State, Georgia Southern, Florida A&M, Savannah State, Miami of Ohio, Bradley and Maryland.
Arizona, on the other hand, has played a more robust schedule thus far and is probably better suited to face the increased level of competition that a neutral site match up, featuring teams of this caliber, will present. Illinois and Duke are the only two teams in the nation to win 25 games in each of the last six seasons. Such a feat may be difficult for Illinois this year, but a victory against the Wildcats could give this inexperienced team the confidence it needs heading into Big 10 play.
Here's how I think the teams will play this one out:
The UNLV game featured some of the best offensive chemistry the Wildcats have displayed since probably 2003 when Luke Walton was in control. Movement away from the ball was outstanding as was evidenced by the many pass and catch lay ups the team had in the second half. What was really impressive was how well screeners were setting picks and players were rubbing off those picks and cutting hard to the hole. Shakur led the team with 11 assists while Radenovic and Williams led the way with 27 and 24 points, respectively. Expect Arizona to again attack the hole against a physical Illinois team to try and get the Illini into foul trouble. Arizona may struggle early from the field if the referees allow Illinois to clutch and grab like physical teams like to do. Expect the Wildcats to adjust quickly, though, and not make the same mistakes they did against Virginia that ultimately cost them the game.
Rich McBride will not hesitate in shooting the 3-point shot. Whether he makes them or not will go a long way in determining how competitive the Illini will be. In their loss to Maryland, McBride was only 2 of 9 from behind the arc. Illinois averages 74.8 PPG and gets balanced scoring from what amounts to be an eight man rotation. Shaun Pruitt is leading the team with 12.8 PPG and 7.5 rebounds. The 6'10" center will provide a tough defensive match up for Arizona's Radenovic when they Cats are playing man defense. Warren Carter, a 6'9" forward will attack inside as well while silky smooth sophomore guard Jamar Smith can score from anywhere on the court when he's in the game.
OFFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA
Arizona traditionally plays well in Phoenix and the fan support will be there so this is about as close to a home game as you'll find for the Wildcats outside of the McKale Center. It's imperative that Shakur plays well against the Illini and I think he will. This is definitely a game where tempo will mean everything. Illinois wants the game in 70's if not lower. Arizona will look to push the Illini in the transition game and then counter their aggressive man-to-man defense by attacking the basket the way they did against UNLV. The Cats have already face ultra-aggressive defensive teams such as Virginia, New Mexico State and UNLV and faired well offensively in all three. Expect the same here once the team adapts to how the officials are calling the game.
Right now, the 2-3 zone looks to be the best fit for this team's personnel. The Cats have used a mix of 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone with a bit of man defense to stifle opponents thus far and fans can expect this type of approach again Saturday. Dillon played very well in the 2-3 against UNLV and his quickness will be greatly needed against the Illini guards. Radenovic must avoid foul trouble because unlike New Mexico State and UNLV, when the Cats go to a zone the Illini will not shy away from continuing to force the ball inside to their big men.
Coach Bruce Weber is a defensive minded guy. It just so happens that he has had players like Deron Williams, Luther Head, James Augustine and Dee Brown who could also fill up the basket in recent years that makes it so easy to forget that nothing makes Weber happier than a good defensive stand. Illinois will give the Cats fits in a half court game. While Arizona can and will score its fair share of points in their half court sets, the Cats will also need to get double digit points in the transition game to pull out the victory.
DEFENSIVE EDGE: EVEN
Arizona has greatly improved on the defensive end. For as great as they look on offense, for the first time in several seasons the team also looks to be gelling a bit on defense as well. The team is loaded with long-armed forwards and lanky guards who are doing a great job of contesting shots. Arizona has yet to face a team who is adamant about going down low and Illinois could be this team. For the Illini, it'll be interesting to see how much their man defense can slow down the Cats. If it can't and the team is forced to mix in zone or even press, then the Illini could be in trouble with so many Arizona shooters who are capable of stroking it from deep.
Arizona has greatly improved on the defensive end. For as great as they look on offense, for the first time in several seasons the team also looks to be gelling a bit on defense as well. The teams is loaded with long-armed forwards and lanky guards who are doing a great job of contesting shots. Arizona has yet to face a team who is adamant about going down low and Illinois could be this team. For the Illini, it'll be interesting to see how much their man defense can slow down the Cats. If it can't and the team is forced to mix in zone or even press, then the Illini could be in trouble with so many Arizona shooters who are capable of stroking it from deep.
Illinois will pose a more difficult threat on the boards than any other team Arizona has faced all season. The Illini average 39.0 rebounds per game with their center, Pruitt leading the way (7.5). The Illini are quick enough to send four to the offensive glass and will continue to do so until the Cats can prove that doing so will cost them too many easy baskets going the other way.
REBOUNDING EDGE: ARIZONA
Both teams have proved thus far that they are strong rebounding teams. While Illinois may have the edge early, expect Arizona to eventually win the rebounding battle because of one player – Shakur. I have no doubt that Budinger, Williams, and Radenovic will contribute greatly in this area, but Shakur's efforts on the glass may prove to be the difference.
College basketball is a great sport because games like this one can be played in November and December and while a win may go a long way in helping a team obtain a higher seeding in a postseason tournament, a loss will not ruin a season. I say this because I expect a continuing to develop Illinois team will get the loss on Saturday but will gain so much from the experience in helping them improve as a team.
The win by no means will be easy and if the Widcats revert to seasons past and begin to take quick shots and play poor team defense, then the Illini will most certainly get the victory. That being said, I expect Arizona to continue to play solid team basketball. The Illini are a formidable opponent, but this is basically a home game for the Wildcats so the crowd advantage will be there. Also, while Illinois is still searching for a go-to-guy when they really need a bucket, Arizona has four of them in Budinger, McClellan, Radenovic and Williams. Arizona also has a senior point guard who hasn't forgotten what Illinois did to Arizona in the Elite Eight back in 2005.
Shakur is too smart to let a little thing like revenge get in the way of him doing his job (distribute the rock), but he will be playing with just a tad more incentive in this game than maybe any other this season. I expect Shakur, along with the other starters, to continue their solid play and to have learned from their experiences in the Virginia loss to not look back when they go up by more than 10 on Saturday.
ARIZONA 84 Illinois 71