Preview: UNC vs. Illinois, ACC/Big Ten Challenge

It’s been a minute since the Fighting Illini of Illinois have squared off against the Heels, but this showdown is steeped in tradition. The tradition of UNC winning NCAA championships, that is. UNC leads the overall series four games to three, but the most important of those Ws was the 2005 championship game. The Heels obviously won, but lost to Illinois the following year in this same challenge, although the team was paced by a freshman named Tyler Hansbrough with 17 points.

That was the last time the teams saw each other and a lot has obviously changed. Illinois has had some growing pains the past couple seasons but are prepared to compete in a very tough Big Ten this season. The Illini took part in the Coaches vs. Cancer tourny in New York this year where they lost to a good Texas team in OT and beat a feisty Maryland squad by four. Other than those, Illinois has run through a list of opponents including UC-Irvine, Toledo, Southern Illinois, Yale and Western Michigan.

If anything can be said by looking at their schedule is UNC is going to have its work cut out for them – as if we didn’t already know that – because unlike the Heels, Illinois knows how to put games away. The Illini’s games against lowly opponents have not been as interesting as Carolina’s.

  • Illinois has figured out how to do something UNC has had trouble doing: get production out of its starting line-up. The Illini are second in the Big Ten in scoring with 80.4 ppg, which is barely 2 pts better per game than UNC, but around 70 percent of that is from the starters, all five of which average double digits. Senior guard Demetri McCamey (right) leads the way with 15 ppg, but the Illini has a front court of 6’9″ and 7’1″ which could give the Heels more trouble.
  • The Illini have nine players that average over 12 minutes a game. UNC has ten if you round up Justin Watts’ 11.8. The Illini boast there bench has outscored their opponent’s by almost 14 ppg, but the bench only averages about 20 ppg. On the other hand, UNC’s bench averages over 30 ppg. Yes, Illinois has a productive starting five, but UNC has a much more formidable squad as reserves.
  • Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland will need to keep up the impressive defensive pressure they showed against C of C. McCamey also dishes out 7.7 apg and D.J. Richardson shoots 46.9 percent from 3.
  • Illinois has another seven-footer coming off the bench in freshman Meyers Leonard, but frosh Jereme Richmond may cause more of a problem. Richmond is averaging 8.6 ppg as a 6’7″ guard/forward. Harrison Barnes has shown a pretty good defensive game, but if the reserves are in with Richmond, Justin Watts and Reggie Bullock lose a couple inches to the taller Richmond.

If the Heels can build on what they started at the end of the C of C game they may be able to leave Assembly Hall with a W. The challenge will come from shutting down the Illini starting line and getting production out of its own on the offensive side of the ball. And if it comes down to it, the Heels will have to hit free throws. You can’t win close games missing free throws.

Prediction: UNC 82, Illinois 79