‘It’s going to be a bloody battle’: All eyes on UConn-Illinois Elite Eight showdown

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“It doesn’t get any better than this. It’s the champion of the Big East and the champion of the Big Ten. To be national champion you have to play and beat the best. That’s what’s so exciting about this matchup.”

These were the words of UConn sophomore forward Alex Karban When asked to describe Saturday night’s East Regional final between defending national champion Connecticut and Illinois, which is making its first Elite Eight appearance since 2005.

The million-dollar question in this year’s NCAA Tournament is crystal clear: Can anyone beat UConn?

The Huskies enter Saturday night’s Elite Eight matchup having beaten nine consecutive opponents in the NCAA Tournament by at least 13 points. They have won three games in this year’s Big Dance by an average margin of 29 points.

Illinois fifth-year senior marcus domask He had to play a 32-4 Purdue team twice this season, but when asked about Dan Hurley’s program, which has now won 40 of its last 43 games, he didn’t bat an eyelash .

“I would say they’re obviously the best team we’ve played,” said Domask, who has averaged 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists while playing Robin this season. terence shannon jr On this Illinois team. “They’re No. 1 overall, so that means they’re the best. I think they’re really deep. All five starters are averaging double figures. They have no drop-off at all. Whatever they They can bring different styles to the game, they can show different styles with their big men, and they have a great point guard in Tristan Newton who runs their team.”

As appreciative as Domask was for the Huskies, who are trying to become national champions for the first time since Billy Donovan’s Florida teams accomplished the feat in 2006 and ’07, senior big man Coleman Hawkins took a different approach.

“I think there’s no pressure on us,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s another game. We’re going to prepare the same way. We’re going to practice the same way. We’re going to study film the same way. I feel confident. I feel comfortable ”

Speaking about film study and feeling comfortable, Hurley told Fox Sports on Friday evening that he’s watching the Gavits Games meeting on Nov. 14 between Illinois and Marquette to prepare for the Illini.

“Illinois is as good as the best teams in our league,” said Hurley, whose Huskies joined Marquette and Creighton in the Sweet 16 before the Golden Eagles and Bluejays both got off to a 7-0 Big East start on Friday night. Tournament. “They have physicality, rebounding and being an NBA level player. They have all the guard play, and the way they post their guards and reverse their bigs, they have some Villanova quality.”

Illinois ranks 11th in the country with a +8.2 rebounding advantage per game, with the Huskies fifth at +8.8. UConn dominated San Diego State on the glass Thursday, 50-28, while holding a 38-18 edge in points in the paint.

While Illinois coach Brad Underwood highly praised top-seeded UConn, he said Hurley has done a great job and “has a lot of respect for how hard they play,” the seventh-year Illini leader. Full of confidence as he gets ready to lead a team to the Elite Eight for the first time in his 11 years as a head coach at the collegiate level.

It’s easy to see one of the most experienced teams in the country, and a group he’s clearly having fun with, especially after advancing to the regional finals after Thursday’s 72-69 win over Iowa State. That’s why.

“UConn is awesome and they’re one of the best teams we’ve played,” Underwood said. “But we’ve also seen them all in the Big Ten, and we’re excited for this opportunity.

“They run a lot of sets, it’s nothing we haven’t seen during Big Ten play and in the postseason. We’ve got to defend it. We can’t go too deep, but we’ve got to hammer some. Discuss the key aspects we want to try to do on both ends of the court. They run in transition. They get a lot of 3s in transition. We like to run in transition. We like to score in under seven seconds. Like. So these are some reflection styles.”

On the offensive end of the floor, there’s no doubt this is that type of matchup, as UConn boasts the nation’s No. 1 offensive efficiency, with Illinois ranked No. 2 in that category. One reason this game will be full of intrigue is the fact that despite the Huskies having a first-team All-American in Newton, they do not have the best player going into this game. No one has been better in this tournament or over the past three weeks than Shannon, who is averaging 30.3 points per game over the last seven contests.

The Huskies, on the other hand, are extremely balanced, with three different players leading them in scoring in three NCAA Tournament games. Cam Spencer scored a team-high 18 points, while Newton had 17 and Stephon Cassel added 16 points in the win over San Diego State.

The way Underwood has built his team with big, versatile guards means Illinois can switch on defense, but that switching must be frequent, as the Illini rank 84th in KenPom defensive efficiency, while Connecticut It is ranked sixth in that category. But there are similarities in the way these teams play, which can make for close contests, something UConn hasn’t experienced much this season.

Even in the midst of combat, Hurley’s aggressive and old-school mentality does not change.

“It’s going to be a bloody battle,” Hurley said of Saturday’s matchup with the Illini. “It’s a rebounding battle tomorrow. It’s going to be a bloody battle. The Big East and the Big Ten, the two toughest leagues. You’ve got real guys playing in these two conferences. So, when the ball goes up, Joe The fastest will be whoever makes the first violent contact and then continues to improve their position. I know they are hungry to move forward and get to the Final Four. We are hungry to get back to the Final Four. “And we’re two of the best teams in the country, really.”

With the top two seeds in the West Region, North Carolina and Arizona, being eliminated from the tournament Thursday night, the winner of Saturday night’s showdown in Boston will feel they have a better path to the title. The game was much more than it looked on paper.

Boston has “Game On” on Saturday night, which also includes a trip to Phoenix.

John Fant is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for Fox Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, ranging from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the Big East Digital Network to providing on-field commentary for 68 Media Networks. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta,

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