Who better to inquire of the Canes' next opponent than the good folks over at the Champaign Room? Tom Fornelli was kind enough to answer some questions and give us a Illini-based perspective on the matchup.
Miami and Illinois will square off Sunday night with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. Granted, many of us (yours truly included) may not have watched much Illinois basketball this year, so I figured --- why the hell not ask somebody who knows about them?
Tom Fornelli, the grand puba over at the Champaign Room, took the time to answer my questions on the matchup:
1.) Illinois won the Maui Invitational, and later beat Gonzaga, Indiana, and Ohio State. Yet they finished 8-10 in the Big 10. Just how good is this Illinois team, and would most fans consider John Groce's first season in Champaign a success at this point?
Well, first of all, the Big Ten is a really tough conference, everybody is going to lose a few games and did. If you just look at Illinois' conference record I don't think you get the real story on how good this team has been and could be at times. I mean, the wins speak for themselves.
But this is also a team that can go cold. If you saw the second half against Colorado you know that. When that happens there's nobody they can't lose to. This team is bi-polar.There are highs and there are lows.
As for Groce, the goal of most Illini fans this season was just to get back to the tournament after missing it last year and a few too many NIT berths in recent seasons. Well, the Illini not only got to the tournament, but they've already won a game to boot. So, yes, Groce's first season is a success. Anything from this point on is cake.
2.) When you look at this game with Miami, what concerns you the most?
Size. You have a lot of it, and the Illini really don't. Nnanna Egwu is tall, but he's not very thick and he can be abused by larger post players. I feel like Kenny Kadji could do quite a bit of damage on Sunday night, and the Illini are going to need to send a double team at him which is going to leave guys like Shane Larkin open and you know who I don't want being left open for any reason what-so-ever? Shane Larkin.
3.) On the flip side, what advantages do you see that Illinois can exploit?
I don't think Miami defends the three all that well. Teams are only shooting about 33% from three against Miami, but they're taking a lot of threes anyway. That tells me there are open looks. So I think the Illini are going to get open looks. If they hit them, well, just ask Indiana and Gonzaga what happens.
4.) For Miami fans that haven't watched Illinois this year, what kind of player is your leading scorer Brandon Paul? Given Miami's ability to score in bunches, and the ability to defend on the perimeter with All-ACC defenders Durand Scott and Shane Larkin, is Paul a guy who can put the team on his back and have one of those 30+ point magical performances if needed on Sunday?
I think Brandon Paul is a victim of his own success, really. He's more than capable of putting up monster games, but it's because of those games that I feel like a portion of the fanbase gets frustrated he doesn't do it every night. But can he put up 30 on Durand Scott? Well, he put up 43 on Aaron Craft and William Buford
last season, so I'm going to say he can. Though the truth is I don't want him too. I think the only way Illinois beats Miami is if the entire offense is contributing, not just Brandon Paul.
5.) Miami has gotten production from a multitude of players this year, but Kenny Kadji has been a matchup nightmare for teams. He scores in transition, has a very nice touch from long range off the high ball screens, and has a good game with his back to the basket. How does Illinois game plan for him?
As I've mentioned, I'm very worried about Kadji. I don't know if Illinois will have as much trouble running the court with him because Nnanna Egwu is very athletic as well, but if I'm Kadji I'd expect quite a few double-teams. The Illini have used them to good effect against players like Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe and Indiana's Cody Zeller.
6.) Who advances to the Sweet 16 and why?
As much as I want to go straight homer, I'm going with the Canes. I feel like Miami's size is just going to be too much for the Illini in the long run and it's going to be hard for our bigs to stay out of foul trouble. I think it's a close game, but Miami is going to move on.