Illinois Basketball: Toughest Individual Player Matchups for Projected Starters
With the college basketball season tipping off in just four short months, it is never too early to look ahead at your team's opponents for the upcoming year. The Big Ten will be as deep as ever in 2014-15. Wisconsin is a national title contender, while second place in the league appears to be up for grabs.
Illinois' midseason struggles kept them out of the 2014 NCAA tournament, though the Fighting Illini rebounded well to end the year with Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill's entrance into the starting lineup. With that being said, Illinois returns all five starters from last year's NIT squad.
The team also adds a trio of newcomers who are expected to make an immediate splash. Transfers Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) will see plenty of time in the backcourt from Day 1, while Leron Black may be head coach John Groce's most anticipated recruit yet.
Tracy Abrams vs. Deandre Mathieu
A season ago, Mathieu struggled in Illinois' 62-49 road win in Minneapolis. The 5'9, 165-pound Mathieu had as many turnovers as points in the game (three) while fouling out in only 24 minutes of action. This was the only meeting between the Fighting Illini and Golden Gophers in 2013-14.
Both teams participated in the NIT, with Minnesota winning the entire tournament. Mathieu, a Morehead State transfer, will be out for revenge in his second career appearance against Illinois as a senior. The teams meet only once again in 2014-15, also in the Twin Cities, where Illinois has had plenty of recent success.
While Abrams is a great on-ball defender, Mathieu's quickness poses problems for plenty of opponents. Abrams will need to keep Mathieu from penetrating in the paint and force him to either be a pass-first point guard or mid-range jump shooter.
Kendrick Nunn vs. D.J. Newbill
As a junior, Newbill, a Southern Miss transfer, was one of the Big Ten's top players. H scored in double figures in all but three games, one of those being on January 4 in Champaign. In that game, Newbill was held to seven points and did not record a rebound or assist.
Newbill's day ended early, as he was ejected following an altercation with then-freshman Kendrick Nunn. While Nunn may have initiated the contact, Newbill's reaction to throw a punch clearly shows that Nunn was able to get under his skin in a game where Newbill struggled.
Newbill scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and assisted on three baskets in their second meeting of the season on February 9, which Illinois ended up winning as well. Look for Nunn to try a similar defensive approach in the team's lone 2014-15 meeting, which will be Newbill's final visit to Champaign.
Rayvonte Rice vs. Aaron White
In both of the Illinois vs. Iowa matchups last season, White shot at or over 50 percent from the field while averaging 13.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in the series. The 6'9" White has played second fiddle to Roy Devyn Marble the past two seasons, but he will be Iowa's No. 1 option as a senior.
White is capable of playing both forward positions, but on a roster full of lanky big men, he should continue to start at small forward. This could spell trouble for the backcourt-heavy Illini roster. While Rice's toughness cannot be questioned, you can't teach size, as White stands five inches taller than Rice.
Early in his career, White's primary methods of scoring were off dunks and three-pointers. As he has matured as a player, he has become an effective driver and uses the baseline to get open. Look for White to attempt postups in the two teams' only 2014-15 meeting in Iowa City.
Malcolm Hill vs. Branden Dawson
In both of the Fighting Illini vs. Spartan matchups a season ago, Groce's bunch was able to hold Dawson in check. He averaged 7.5 points and 6.5 rebounds He was effective on the defensive end, however, averaging 1.0 block and 1.5 steals while committing only four fouls.
It should be noted that Dawson played in only one game in this two-game series, as he missed nine straight contests due to injury. Both road teams emerged victorious, with Illinois stunning Tom Izzo's crew in a 53-46 barnburner in the March 1 contest.
While Dawson only stands 6'6", he packs 225 pounds and may be the league's top dunker. He is an offensive rebounding machine who will take on a bigger scoring role following Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling's departures from East Lansing.
Malcolm Hill came to Champaign as a lanky 17-year-old from Belleville, Illinois, but has reportedly gained 21 pounds and thus upping his weight to 232, according to IllinoisHomepage.net. Hill should be more prepared as a sophomore to guard Dawson, as the teams will once again meet twice.
Nnanna Egwu vs. Frank Kaminsky
Kaminsky was one of the stars of last year's NCAA tournament, scoring 28 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in Wisconsin's overtime win over Arizona in the Elite Eight. Instead of leaving school a year early and being a fringe first-round pick, Kaminsky decided to return to Madison for his senior season.
He is a tough matchup because of his ability to score in the post, as well as from behind the arc. In his 43-point effort against North Dakota last November, he shot 16-of-19 from the field, including 6-of-6 from three-point range, all in just 28 minutes of playing time.
The 7'0" senior from Lisle, Illinois, played his high school ball at Benet Academy, while Egwu played at St. Ignatius in Chicago. Egwu may very well lead the Big Ten in blocked shots next season, though don't expect many of those to come during Illinois' road trip to Madison. A season ago, the Badgers put on a clinic in their 95-70 victory over Illinois, in a game I was unfortunate enough to witness firsthand.