“There’s gonna be a lot of punches thrown” as Illinois men’s basketball faces unbeaten Arizona

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Cameron Krasucki

Illinois junior center Kofi Cockburn battles for position in the pain during his team’s game against Rutgers at State Farm Center on Dec. 3. The Illini welcome the undefeated No. 11 Arizona Wildcats to town on Saturday.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

In what many are calling the biggest non-conference game to be played in Champaign in over a decade, the Illinois men’s basketball team will battle No. 11 Arizona at State Farm Center on Saturday. 

The Illini (7-2) head into Saturday’s contest on a five-game winning streak, which included two conference wins. Arizona (8-0) remains undefeated.

“I think there’s gonna be guys that’s swinging; there’s gonna be a lot of punches thrown,” said junior Kofi Cockburn. “It’s just about who reacts better to those punches, who gets up fastest, who gets up more. I think we’re gonna be that team because we’re so connected.”

The two programs have a history that spans all the back to 1966, but the most notable game in that history came in 2005, when Illinois came back from down 15 to defeat Arizona in overtime and advance to the Final Four for the first time.

It’ll be a big day for Illini fans to relive the memory of that historic ‘05 team led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. The current team has no such memory.

“Our players don’t even really know who Deron Williams and Dee Brown are,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “It was 16 years ago now, so now everything’s new. Our fans remember the history and there’s a lot of it, but it doesn’t go any further than that.”

Underwood said he hasn’t brought up the 2005 matchup in practice or while watching film. He instead has his team focused on Arizona’s current roster, which features several dynamic underclassmen standouts.

Arizona’s top four scorers include three sophomores and a junior. Their leading scorer, sophomore Bennedict Mathurin, is averaging 17.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

“He’s a guy that has extreme bounce; he’s elite in the open court,” Underwood said. “He’s a dead eye, he’s a really good perimeter shooter. … He’s gonna be a next level guy.”

If Mathurin was the only scoring threat in Arizona’s backcourt, it’d be an easy decision have Illinois fifth-year senior Trent Fraizer guard him, but Mathurin’s backcourt mate is also dangerous.

Sophomore guard Kerr Krissa is averaging 11.0 points per game while shooting 36% from three on a staggering eight attempts per game.

Underwood said the Illini plan to play with a fast pace on Saturday despite the fact that Arizona likes to play that way. The Illini are coming in averaging 77.9 points per game, good for 78th in the nation, while Arizona leads the nation with an average point total of 91.6.

“We’ve always taken a lot of pride in being able to run with anybody, and we’ve been at the top of that food chain … at the Power Five level,” Underwood said, “Whatever the scenario is, we want to be able to play that way. Playing up tempo, playing fast is something that our guys thrive in.”

The Illini also will have to deal with Arizona doubling Cockburn, which is nothing new. Cockburn has been doubled by every team Illinois has played this year, and it hasn’t slowed him down much. He’s currently averaging 22.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game, while also shoot 71.4% from the free-throw line, up from 61% last year.

Underwood said Arizona is a “strong-side double team,” adding that they make full rotations “and they’re good at it.”

“Kofi’s gotta be a big boy, and he’s gotta play big boy basketball,” Underwood said. “We’ve seen him facilitate; we’ve seen him make great passes this year. He’s gotta take his opportunities when they’re there.”

It’ll be no easy task for Cockburn to face Arizona’s two legit seven-footers who both play over 20 minutes a game. It might even be the toughest matchup of his college career. 

Talking to Cockburn, you wouldn’t know it.

“I don’t know about the long term,” Cockburn said, “I know we lost to them my freshman year. I don’t plan on losing again.”

 

@JonesChristianT

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