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

“Nothing could be better than this. It’s the champions of the Big East and the champions of the Big Ten. You’ve got to play and beat the best to be crowned a national champion. That’s what is so exciting about this matchup.”

Those were the words of UConn sophomore forward Alex Karaban when asked to describe Saturday night’s East Regional Final between reigning 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 pretty clear: Can anybody beat UConn? 

The Huskies enter Saturday night’s Elite Eight matchup with the Illini having beaten nine straight 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 had to play a 32-4 Purdue team twice this season, but even he didn’t bat an eye when asked about Dan Hurley’s program, which has now won 40 of its last 43 games.

“I would say they’re clearly the best team we’ve played,” said Domask, who has averaged 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists this season, playing the role of Robin to Terrence Shannon Jr. on this Illinois team. “They’re the overall No. 1, so that means they’re the best. I just think they’re really deep. All five starters are averaging in double-digits. They have no drop-offs at all. Anybody they bring into the game, they can show different styles with their big men, and they have a great point guard in Tristen Newton, who runs their team.” 

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

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

Speaking of film study and feeling comfortable, Hurley told FOX Sports on Friday evening that he’s been watching the Nov. 14 Gavitt Games meeting between Illinois and Marquette as a way to prepare for the Illini.

“Illinois is as good as the best teams in our league,” said Hurley, whose Huskies were joined by Marquette and Creighton in the Sweet 16 before both the Golden Eagles and Bluejays fell on Friday night after the Big East started 7-0 in the tournament. “They’ve got the physicality, the rebounding and NBA-level players. They’ve got all of the guard play, and they’ve got some Villanova quality to them with the way they post their guards and invert their bigs.” 

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

While Illinois coach Brad Underwood was extremely complimentary of top-seeded UConn, stating that Hurley has done a great job and that he has a “tremendous respect for how hard they play,” the seventh-year Illini leader remains confident as he gets set to lead a team into the Elite Eight for the first time in his 11 years as head coach at the collegiate level.

With one of the most experienced teams in the nation, and a group that he is clearly having fun with, particularly after Thursday’s 72-69 win over Iowa State to advance to the regional final, it’s easy to see why.

“UConn is terrific, and they’re right up there with the best teams we’ve played,” Underwood said. “But we’ve seen them all in the Big Ten as well, and we’re excited for the opportunity. 

“They run a lot of sets, nothing that we haven’t seen throughout the course of Big Ten play and postseason. We’ve got to guard it. We can’t get too in-depth, but we’ve got to hammer home some of the important aspects we want to try to do on both ends of the court. They run in transition. They get a ton of 3s in transition. We love to run in transition. We love to score under seven seconds. So it’s some mirroring styles.” 

On the offensive end of the floor, there’s no question it is that type of matchup, as UConn boasts the nation’s No. 1 offensive efficiency, with Illinois at No. 2 in that category. One reason why this game is filled with intrigue is the fact that even with the Huskies having a first-team All-American in Newton, they don’t have the best player heading into this game. Nobody has been better in this tournament, or in the last three weeks, than Shannon, who has averaged 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 supplied 17 and Stephon Castle had 16 in the win over San Diego State. 

The way Underwood built his team with big, versatile guards means Illinois can switch on defense, but that switching has to be consistent, as the Illini rank 84th in KenPom defensive efficiency, while Connecticut ranks sixth in that category. But there are similarities in the way these teams play, which could lead to a close game, something UConn hasn’t experienced much this season.

Even in the midst of blowouts, the aggressive and old-school mindset of Hurley does not change.

“It’s going to be a bloody battle,” Hurley said of Saturday’s matchup with the Illini. “It’s a rebounding war tomorrow. It’s going to be a bloody one. The Big East and the Big Ten, two of the toughest leagues. You get real men playing in these two conferences. So, when the ball goes up, whoever’s fastest to it, whoever makes that first violent contact and then continues to improve their position. I know they’re hungry to break through and get to a Final Four. We’re hungry to get back to a Final Four, and we’re two of the truly best teams in the country.” 

With the top-two seeds in the West Region, North Carolina and Arizona, both getting knocked out of the tournament on Thursday night, the winner of Saturday night’s showdown in Boston has to feel like they’ve got a much better track to the title game than what it was looking like on paper.

It’s “Game On” Saturday night in Boston, with a trip to Phoenix on the line.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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