Here you have it Illini basketball fans, the premier preconference matchup of the 2021-22 season for the orange and blue. #11 Arizona, who fell one spot in the rankings this past week, head to the State Farm Center for a nationally televised Saturday showcase showdown.
To the extent that you can actually have intersectional rivalries in college basketball, this is about as big as it gets. These two programs have really waged some epic battles over the year recent decades, and this is sort of like a hoops version of USC-Notre Dame in football; a Midwest-Pac 12 rivalry. Or at least it could be that if that, if they somehow played every year. Let’s preview this one, Illini basketball fans.
There’s LOTS of History Here
As alluded to in the open, a lot has transpired between these two sides over the years. One must start with of course, the “Mannheim Miracle,” or as I have called it, the “Nailbiter for Nellyville” or “Easter Eve Resurrection.” Absolutely left for dead in the 2005 Chicago Regional Final, the Illini were down 75-60 with four minutes left, but then showed why it was No. 1 for most of that season.
They came roaring back to tie it at 80 with 38 seconds left, and triumphed in OT 90-89; clinching the program’s fourth Final Four berth in suburban Rosemont at AllState Arena. It’s arguably the most iconic and memorable game in Illini basketball history, and I was there first hand, but more importantly so was Bill Murray! Hence we have lots of photos from that game in our preview article here.
Probably the most meaningful comeback in Illini basketball history, the win was revenge for another Elite 8 match-up waged between the two sides, one day off from being exactly four years prior. Arizona won that one 87-81. It was part of a weird statistical anomaly that saw a Big 10 team play a Pac 10 team three times in the same season, and four times across two calendar years.
Illini basketball got their first really high profile win in the United Center (which was just two years old at the time) when they triumphed 81-73 in December 2000, but the Cats took Maui Invitational title game a month prior and thus won the season series 2-1. They also won the next meeting, in Phoenix, in 2001-02. Arizona leads the all-time series 9-6, having won all four at home, lost all three on the road, and taken five of eight on neutral courts.
By the Numbers
ESPN match-up predictor gives the Illini a 71.8% chance of winning this 4pm tip on FOX. The Illini head into the weekend with a KenPom of #14 while the Wildcats (if you want to know the explanation of why University of Arizona fans say “Bear Down” go to this link) are #12.
Zona comes in averaging 91.3 ppg and giving 58.7 ppg. The Illini, on the other hand, come in with a 65.9 ppg allowed mark, and 77.9 ppg on offense. This Illini basketball team are shooting 45.7%, collecting 43.6 rebounds and averaging 16.4 assists, 3.1 blocks and 5.8 assists per game.
U of A season numbers read like this: 49.1% FG, 45 rpg, 23 apg, 7bpg, 8.6 spg.
Illini Basketball FYIs
B1G Preseason Player of the Year Kofi Cockburn missed the first three games of the season due to a suspension, but he seems to be picking up right where he left off in the last campaign. He’s still dominant, overall, but still needs to work on passing out of double teams and kicking out to the shooters.
Andre Curbelo should not have been cleared to play iin that embarrassment/complete disaster at Marquette as he was simply not right. He’s both missed time and played through the pain a lot on the young season. Trent Frazier has done likewise. The Illini had a pretty awful November, on multiple levels, but they seem to have recovered nicely this month.
Once they get Kofi, Belo and Ahmed Plummer all healthy, playing together and clicking at the same time, with Frazier, DaMonte Williams, Coleman Hawkins and Jacob Grandison as solid/above average role players, they’re going to be very good.
Prediction: Arizona 73, Illini basketball 71
The Cats are just better than the Illini at this point in the season. Stage this in March and maybe it’s a different story, but 2021-22 Illinois basketball is still a ways away from being all that can or will be this term. I think that much is very clear.
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