No. 24 Illinois Fighting Illini (6-0) at No. 16 Miami Hurricanes (7-0)
TV: ESPN2, 9:00 PM ET
If you fully expected both Illinois and Miami to be Top 25 teams for this pivotal Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, raise your hand. And I won't linger here, because I know full well that I'm the only one with his hand up.
The Hurricanes sport a tantalizing blend of veteran leadership and youthful athleticism, and master tactician Jim Larranaga is a coach that should never be doubted when he has talent on the court. While it remains to be seen if the Canes can outstrip the ACC's Big Four of Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville, there was never any reason to doubt that The U could rise to the top of the conference's muddled second tier. Meanwhile, Illinois entered the season capable of capitalizing on a slight vacuum at the top of the Big Ten. While Wisconsin still rides as the league's undisputed favorite, Illinois looks just as capable of mounting a challenge as any other pursuer. It merely needs a quality opponent to prove itself against. Depending on your feelings toward Baylor, this is the first real test for the Illini.
There's a fascinating clash of styles at hand here. While both teams have been very perimeter-oriented this season, Ken Pomeroy shows the Illini spending 15.3 seconds on the average possession, 24th-fastest in the nation. Miami is taking 18.9 seconds per possession, good for 253rd nationally. While the Illini like to get up and down, especially when sophomore Jaylon Tate is in at the point, they also don't get silly with the ball. Both of these teams are in the top 40 nationally in turnover percentage, with Illinois sitting a lofty third. That ranking isn't likely to dip much after this game unless Larranaga dials up a much more aggressive defense than he's shown through seven games. Miami's defense is 242nd in the country at forcing turnovers.
Two efficient offenses laden with shooters may portend a high-scoring game. If the shots aren't falling, however, rebounding becomes paramount. And that leads us to our:
Key Matchup: Illinois C Nnanna Egwu vs. Miami C Tonye Jekiri
These aren't big teams. Illinois will usually start the game in a four-guard lineup, even though the solidly built Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill are essentially guards in name only these days. Miami plays no one taller than 6'8" except for the 7-foot Jekiri. Either man could pose a problem for his coach if he lands in foul trouble, and based on early returns, we're a lot more likely to see that from Egwu than Jekiri. Pomeroy credits Jekiri with 3.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and the Nigerian has already hoisted 19 free throws, making a very solid 16. Egwu has taken twice as many three-pointers (10) as one-pointers (five) so far this year.
Both men play a limited role in their teams' offenses, but we expected that coming in. Both make their names as defenders first. However, most observers expected a bit more than 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds a game from Egwu in his senior season. Jekiri, by contrast, has dominated on the glass for Miami. He has no double-doubles just yet, but he's already ripped more than 10 rebounds in four different games. He has as many offensive caroms (27) as Egwu has total boards so far. Don't sleep on Jekiri as a passer, either. He flirted with a triple-double in last Friday's win over South Alabama, carding 13 points, eight boards, eight assists and adding five blocks because he's a man like that.
If Illinois is going to salvage any advantage from this matchup, Egwu and his teammates must be aggressive and drive right into Jekiri's body. Take Jekiri off the floor, and Miami must turn to 6'8", 260-pound freshman Omar Sherman, who averages about five rebounds per game but also likes to hang outside and look for the jumper. If Jekiri plays his typical game for 30 minutes, the Illini are in trouble barring a lights-out shooting exhibition.
Sherman and Niagara transfer Joe Thomas are just about it as far as frontcourt depth for the Hurricanes. The 6'7", 245-pound Thomas is strictly a rebounder and defender at this point, producing all of eight points through his first seven games. Meanwhile, Illinois has at least been able to count on solid outings from freshman Leron Black. The Memphis native has produced at least six points in every game, and this is a night when he can assert himself on the glass. Sophomores Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert have been reasonably productive in limited minutes - and in between fouls - but the Canes are a team that will capitalize on too many free-throw chances.
While the big men may ultimately decide who wins and loses, the perimeter guys are the ones who'll keep this game interesting. Both teams will be led by potent wing players who are coming in on tremendous rolls. Illinois' Rayvonte Rice went for 38 points, 14 rebounds and eight steals as the Illini swept through Indiana State and Baylor to win the Las Vegas Invitational. The U's Sheldon McClellan has averaged 21 points and 6.8 rebounds over his last four games, shooting better than 67% from the floor. These two will see a lot of each other.
The Illini will get help on McClellan from sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, but those two will be even more important for their offensive potential. Hill is getting his points from wherever he wants them so far, and Nunn has drained 50% from the arc (9-18).
The major question for Illinois, however, is this: Who slows down Miami floor general Angel Rodriguez? The ex-Kansas State Wildcat got an otherworldly kind of hot in the late going against Florida, but his shooting has been up and down since then. The Illini held Baylor's Lester Medford and Indiana State's Charles Mitchell to a combined 4-of-18 from the floor in Las Vegas, but neither of those players has any of Rodriguez's credibility as a gunner. If the shots don't fall for Rodriguez, perhaps they will for Manu Lecomte (18-35 from deep). Or James Palmer (10-22). Illinois guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby are shooting a combined 38% from the arc, but Cosby's coming off an 0-6 night against Baylor and Starks has missed 10 of his last 14. Starks and Tate will need to protect the ball carefully, as Rodriguez is by far the best on-ball defender they've faced to this point of the season. He's ripping 2.7 steals per game, and his 5.5% steal rate sits 23rd in the nation according to KenPom. Lecomte and McClellan aren't slouches, either.
With Nebraska and Rutgers pulling out wins on Day 1 of the Challenge, this game may not be as pivotal as it could have been, but it's one of the biggest toss-ups of the entire competition. Both teams have veteran stars who'll enjoy this sort of stage. Miami has the home court, plus there should still be a chip on the Canes' collective shoulder. The win over Florida was big, but it was a very short-handed Gator team and Miami still needed Rodriguez to get NBA Jam-style fiery from the perimeter. Whoever wins this game should still be able to point to it as a major resume builder come March. Ultimately, however, The U should be considered a slight favorite.