Matchups like this one are rare
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If this matchup was left up to Illinois and Wake Forest, it might not have happened.
Certainly not on the first day of December.
Sure, big-time Top 25 games can be booked as home-and-home series. In a couple of weeks, the top-ranked Deacons play No. 15 Texas.
But No. 1 vs. No. 3, this early in the season, as a one-off contest where one team is playing a true road game, is almost unheard of in recent college basketball.
Top-five teams haven't played in a non-conference game before Christmas, regardless of venue, since Nov. 27, 2001, when then No. 4 Maryland beat No. 2 Illinois 76-63 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in College Park.
ESPN's research department found only three other instances since the 1998-99 season -- No. 2 Arizona over No. 5 Michigan State (79-68) on Dec. 11, 1999; No. 2 Duke over No. 4 Kentucky (71-60) on Dec. 22, 1998 and No. 5 Kentucky over No. 2 Maryland (103-91) on Dec. 12, 1998.
There is another possible top-five matchup coming next Tuesday when current No. 5 Syracuse plays No. 7 Oklahoma State (on a neutral floor) in the headline game of the Jimmy V Classic in New York. But as good a game as that could be, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim probably wouldn't agree to play it if it were in Stillwater.
The truth? Coaches rarely schedule these types of true road games this early in the season.
With Wake-Illinois, the intent was to match two potential top-five teams in a TV showcase event, but ESPN simply got lucky that neither team lost prior to tonight. The game also benefits from Vermont's impressive showing at Kansas, which helped Wake Forest move to No. 1.
Still, these types of games are the beauty of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Coaches don't have a choice if they are scheduled to play a difficult true road game this early in the season.
Marquette coach Tom Crean, who has been watching Illinois tape the past week since the Golden Eagles also played Illini opponents Oakland (MI) and Delaware State, noted that Wake Forest-Illinois is first non-conference game that could be repeated in St. Louis at the Final Four (other possibilities include Kentucky at North Carolina on Saturday and Georgia Tech at Kansas on Jan. 1).
To his credit, Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser welcomes the challenge of playing at Illinois. Following last week's win over Arizona in the Preseason NIT finals, he said this game would be a whole other level. He admitted that the Demon Deacons, while being tested, hadn't been in a true road game. He said this would be where they hear their first boos.
The players are anxious to get this one started, too. Wake Forest guards Chris Paul and Justin Gray have talked with Illinois' Dee Brown and Deron Williams about this game since the four were at the Nike Camp in Indianapolis in July.
What kind of atmosphere should Wake Forest expect Wednesday night?
"The fans are amazing, similar to here," Wisconsin senior forward Mike Wilkinson said Tuesday night in Madison. "They get right on you and they're right on top of the court. It provides a great homecourt advantage for Illinois. It's a great place to play and the Illini feed off of it. It's one of the tougher arenas I've played in and one of the most exciting."
It certainly helps that the Illini have one of the top backcourts in the country.
Illinois blitzed then No. 25 Gonzaga 89-72 in Indianapolis on Saturday. The Illini's vaunted guard trio of Dee Brown (15 ppg), Deron Williams (15 ppg) and Luther Head (17.5 ppg) is off to a fantastic start. So, what's this team's weakness?
"I don't know," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Tuesday night. "I couldn't tell you since we didn't come remotely close to finding out."
But what about Illinois' supposedly suspect inside game? The concerns may be overblown. Memphis coach John Calipari, who played Illinois last season, said the Illini's high-low offense creates even more shots for the guards. The big men are fine, according to Crean, who said James Augustine is a potential "next-level player" and noted that Roger Powell declared for the NBA draft before withdrawing and that 7-foot-2 Nick Smith is an awkward matchup as more of a face-the-basket player.
"They have the type of team that keeps you up at night trying to figure out where to cheat on somebody," Crean said. "Who do you cheat off of? There aren't too many weaknesses in that group."
Few said the Illini share the ball as well as any team he has seen recently, making the extra pass, whipping the ball around and effectively having two point guards on the floor in Brown and Williams. He also said the Illini defense is "really, really disruptive" and that the Illini make up for any deficiencies in the post by swarming it with their guards, "like Saint Joe's did a year ago."
Wake Forest has plenty of offensive options, too, with Paul, Gray, Taron Downey in the backcourt and the Big E (Eric Williams) up front with the athletic Jamaal Levy an even tougher matchup than Smith. The Demon Deacons' bench is deeper than Illinois' and potentially more productive with role players like Trent Strickland and Cliff Ellis up front.
So, it shapes up to be one of those memorable matchups -- on Dec. 1, no less, in a true road game. Maybe coaches will see the drama of this one and want to be a part of it next season by scheduling true road games this early. If it's not part of a made-for-TV event, it certainly would become one if coaches are willing to schedule this type of game on their own.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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