HQ women's hoops prediction: Cancun Challenge

THE SCHEDULE

Thursday: Illinois (4-1) vs. Arizona State (3-1), noon
Friday: Illinois vs. Arkansas State (4-1), 2:30 p.m.
Saturday: Illinois vs. No. 11 North Carolina (4-1), 2:30 p.m.

DETAILS
Site: Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya at Cancun, Mexico

Series: Arizona State leads 1-0; Arkansas State leads 1-0; North Carolina leads 4-0

Radio: WDWS 1400-AM Thursday and Friday; Brent Balbinot (play-by-play) for Arizona State game; Walter Storholt (play-by-play) for Arkansas State game.

JEFF HUTH'S STORYLINES
1. Coaches often refer to their schedule as three seasons in one: preconference, conference and (hopefully) postseason. A case can be made that the Illini’s schedule is divisible by four. Having (with one exception) rolled through its first five nonconference games against (with one exception) overmatched opponents, Illinois now wades into Phase II of the preconference, with far sterner competition. Between Thursday and Dec. 28, the Illini will face three currently ranked teams as well as another receiving votes in this week’s AP Top 25. We’re about to learn a lot more about this UI team than we have so far.

2. If ever a team has reason to put wins and losses in perspective, it’s the North Carolina Tar Heels. In mid-October, 2013 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Sylvia Hatchell announced she was temporarily stepping away from her coaching duties after being diagnosed with leukemia. Hatchell is a giant in the sport, one of four head coaches in women’s collegiate basketball to win 900 career games.(On Wednesday night, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer became the fifth.) Associate head coach Andrew Calder, who has been Hatchell’s top aide since she arrived in Chapel Hill in 1986, is serving as acting head coach in her absence.

3. Illini coach Matt Bollant has said multiple times that this UI team will need to rebound by committee. With a starting lineup composed basically of four guards, everybody would need to chip in, he emphasized. So far, Bollant has to like what he’s seeing. Five Illini are averaging between 5.0 and 8.2 boards per game. It’s revealing, too, to find that six different players have led or tied for the team lead in rebounds in the UI’s first five games — a group that includes a couple of 5-foot-10 guards. It’s added up to a plus-5.4 rebound edge per game. The question now is, can the Illini keep it up against better competition?

Predictions (N-G prediction record: 4-1)
— Arizona State 85, Illinois 81. A coin-flip game; if it comes down to free throws, Illini have edge with 78.8 percent accuracy.

— Illinois 90, Arkansas State 85. This is no gimme for Illini. Red Wolves coming off impressive win at Louisiana Tech.

— North Carolina 77, Illinois 68. One of best teams Illinois will face all season. Young talent (two ACC Rookie of Week picks) making quick impact.
 

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