The Miami game got a lot of talk about being a “test” for Illinois. While that language wasn’t unnecessary, tonight’s game is the real test of the nonconference schedule: Villanova.
Villanova (8-0) is #7 in both polls, and deservedly so. They’re really, really good. According to KenPom.com, the Wildcats are even better than their national ranking, with an offense that is just outside the top 10 but a defense that is #8 and truly stifling. This year Nova is allowing a paltry 55.8 points per game and nabbing 9.8 steals. And they’re not doing it against scrubs, either; their wins have come against the likes of VCU (KenPom rank: 36) and Michigan (37) and decent mid-major teams like La Salle (117) and Saint Joseph’s (137).
The Wildcats have looked like they’re in midseason form already because of their depth and balance. So far Nova has 8 players averaging better than 5 points per game, one more than the Illini. But points are more spread out for Villanova, whereas Illinois has many of its points per game concentrated among Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill.
The battle against Nova might be won by three point shooting. The Wildcats like the three as much as Illinois, but are shooting just 33% this year; however, they are holding opponents to 26%. If Illinois can get its shooters hot and sustain their impact on the game, it could go a long way towards an upset. Likewise, if Nnanna Egwu can sustain some possessions with a good offensive rebounding game, it could keep Nova’s offense from ratcheting up the score. Keeping forward JayVaughn Pinkston in check will also be critical for those around Egwu, otherwise possessions will end abruptly for Illinois.
That said, just staying competitive with Jay Wright’s team would be a win everywhere but the win column. Likewise, if Illinois’s bench continues to be productive while spelling the starters, that would bode extremely well for the upcoming conference season and Illinois’s chances at a Tourney berth.
My prediction: Villanova 75-Illinois 69.