Illinois delivered an early haymaker on Sunday, hitting three of their first four 3-Point attempts against the Wildcats. The Illini kept at it over the course of the first 20 minutes of action and almost led at the break if not for a clutch 3-Pointer by Max Hazzard in the final seconds to put Arizona ahead 39-38 at halftime.
It was the type of early blow that would have knocked out Arizona a season ago. The type of hot shooting start by an opponent that would never really seem to end. The type of efficiency that would pain an Arizona team that struggled mightily on the offensive end of the floor last year.
However, this is not last year.
Despite Illinois (2-1) making 15-of-27 field goals in the first half, Arizona somehow still held an advantage on the scoreboard. Importantly, while the Illini eventually cooled down, Arizona actually found a sixth gear.
Arizona (2-0) was also efficient in the first half, making 16-of-30 field goal tries. In the second half, it was lights out as the new look Wildcats made seven of their last eight shots and knocked down 18-for-31 (58.1%) shots after intermission to blow the doors off McKale Center and rout Illinois 90-69.
Arizona’s freshmen trio was dominant.
Nico Mannion had game highs in points and assists with 23 and nine, respectively. Josh Green finished with 20 points and five rebounds. Zeke Nnaji added 19 points and five rebounds. Combined, the youngsters, who are playing like savvy veterans, shot 25-for-40 from the floor and seemed to be the pulse that kept Arizona’s heartbeat going in the early minutes when adversity smacked the Wildcats directly in the face.
As Illinois was knocking down defended 3-Pointers, pushing the tempo, and scoring inside on a variety of difficult shot attempts, Mannion was working his own magic with a mix of floaters in the lane and deep jumpers off on-ball screens. It was a Mannion many recognized from the recruiting trail and high school action, but not the Mannion Wildcat fans witnessed in Arizona’s exhibition game against Chico State and season opener against Northern Arizona.
This version of Mannion was aggressive. He was ruthless. He played with an edge and even got in some legitimate trash talking with Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu. Impressively, the trash talking from Mannion didn’t occur in the second half with Arizona rolling. Instead, Mannion was jawing with Dosunmu in the first five minutes of the game when Illinois was scoring at will and stretching its lead.
For those Arizona fans who forgot what it meant to have a bona fide point guard running show, Mannion is the jolt the program needed after a forgetful 2018-2019 campaign. Mannion can create shots on his own, he can dish out no-look assists or the nifty behind-the-back pass to an open jump shooter for a knockdown trey that he did do against Illinois. He’s big, he’s strong, and as witnessed on Sunday, he’s not afraid to let the opponent know what’s on his mind, verbally.
The warning shot to the Pac-12 is obvious.
In year’s past, a zone defense was kryptonite to the Wildcats. Opponents could lock in on one or two Wildcats and literally shut down the entire offense.
This season, it appears the Wildcats are not only deeper than they have been in the last three seasons, but the depth includes scoring versatility across the roster. Hazzard, who scored 10 points on Sunday, has already proven he’s more than capable of knocking down perimeter shots. Green, whose one knock coming out of high school was his three-point shooting, made 4-of-7 from deep against Illinois. Mannion, who was in full effect against the Illini, was able to use the dribble to get wherever he wanted on the court, using his size and quickness to create separation and knock down defender jumpers and floaters.
Where things really open up is the inside and outside play of big men Nnaji and Stone Gettings. Each are efficient shooters out to 18 feet, yet are strong enough to battle inside and make challenged shots in the paint. Add it all up and Arizona’s floor spacing is already vastly improved from season’s past.
Naturally, Arizona has plenty of room for improvement, but Sunday’s game should give fans hope that this year’s team is different. The competitive edge the freshmen have brought to the table, combined with the solid play of wily veterans like graduate transfers Hazzard and Gettings, along with the toughness of Wildcat returners Chase Jeter, Dylan Smith and Ira Lee is looking like a pretty solid winning recipe
It’s also looking like those zone defenses Pac-12 opponents love to throw at Arizona might not be as effective this year as they’ve been in the past.