Villanova already battled the University of Illinois once this year. Now, Coach Wright and his Wildcats will take the fight to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden where they'll face the resurgent Fighting Illini (6-1). The contest tips off action at 7:30 in New York as part of the annual Jimmy V Classic; the Indiana Hoosiers and Louisville Cardinals will square off in the second bout.
Illinois has enjoyed a strong start to the season, ripping off six initial wins and emerging as champions of the Las Vegas Invitational. A major difference between last year's disappointing 20-14 squad and the upstart Illini of new lies in their new found high-octane offense; they score at 15th best rate in the country with 83.9 ppg. Kenpom registers Illinois as the 54th best team in their adjusted offense ranking. When paired with their top-25 defense, Villanova may be facing their toughest test of the season yet.
Let's take a look at three of the most important considerations for the Wildcats as they step into Madison Square Garden.
Neutralize Rayvonte Rice
It seems as if Coach John Groce has a Jayvaughn Pinkston of his own down at Urbana-Champaign. You often hear about how a basketball player was a star quarterback or wide receiver in high school, right? Well Rayvonte Rice was an all-state fullback. The hometown junior utilizes his thick, 230 pound frame to relentlessly attack the basket; Rice averages just under six free throws per game. He knows how to bait the defender and finish through contact for the and-one. Toss in a 47% shooting percentage from beyond the arc and Rice is an instant match-up nightmare.
For Villanova, the key to stopping the Fighting Illini's leading scoring will be to pester him with length.He's an athlete, but not overly quick off the bounce. It'll be easier said than done, but those charged with covering Rice, likely Dylan Ennis, Darrun Hilliard II, and Josh Hart, must do their best to keep their man in front of them.
Mark up on shooters
Their success is predicated behind driving and kicking to the open man. Senior point guard Ahmad Starks, only listed at 5'9," does an especially good job of breaking down his defender and penetrating the defense. The lead guard boasts approximately a 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. One of his favorite targets is a name Villanova fans should be familiar with--Aaron Cosby. The transfer out of Seton Hall leads the team with 17 three point field goals on the season.
As Villanova fans are all too familiar with, over-reliance on three point production can pay uneven returns. When they shoot 15-28 (54%), it's no surprise that Illinois will post 114 points on Coppin State. But shooting 7-30 (23%) against Miami will also yield just 61 points and their first loss on the season. The Wildcats must do their best to find shooters in transition and resist over-collapsing on dribble penetration.
Attack Nnanna Egwu
Nnanna Egwu is the main presence in the post, both on offense and defense, for the Illini. As the primary player responsible for defending the basket, Egwu has the tendency to find himself in foul trouble early on in the game. Illinois has yet to find a consistent backup to absorb minutes when their starting center is forced to leave the game. Freshman forward Leron Black has been productive in spurts, but remains largely untested against high-caliber competition. If Villanova is able to attack the basket and get Egwu into early foul trouble, it could go a long way in finding Daniel Ochefu some easy buckets.