At long last, we have ~some~ stability in the early season schedule, and we will see this eagerly awaited college basketball season kick off for the Illini this week. While it doesn’t come with the typical early season hype with major early season tournaments, there’s some intriguing matchups to test the meddle of this Illinois squad early before getting into Big Ten play. The first three matchups, North Carolina A&T, Chicago State and Ohio, should be low stress tune-ups, especially as home contests, for this talented Illinois squad. The final three — the Jimmy V Classic matchup against Baylor, Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Duke and the annual Braggin Rights game vs. Missouri — should be early season pressure tests to see how well this team is coming together. Let’s get into it.
Editor’s note: The official Illinois Men’s Basketball schedule online lists a TBA matchup on Dec. 5. This game is supposed to be played in Champaign.
The Early Tune-ups:
These first three games will serve to build chemistry on the floor and allow the coaching staff the time to build out what the rotation will look like going into Big Ten play. Illinois should coast through these first few matchups, especially in a year with so much returning and incoming talent.
North Carolina A&T: The Illini coasted to an easy 30-point victory against this squad a year ago. Expect more of the same this time around. A&T returns projected conference player of year Kameron Langley (9.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 8.0 APG) and sophomore guard Fred Cleveland Jr. (9.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1 SPG), who is coming off an all-rookie honors campaign. With these two table setters in the backcourt, this team will likely score by committee with Kwe Parker (7.2 PPG), Tyler Maye (8.7 PPG) and transfer Tyler Jones (7.2 PPG) in the fold. However, the Aggies lost two of their top scorers from this matchup a year ago in Ronald Jackson and Devin Haygood. This lack of experience in the front court, outside of the return of junior Tyrone Lyons (7.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG), will be majorly exposed against the deep, talented group from the Illini. Don’t expect any drama in this one.
Chicago State: The Cougars were recently slated to fill this spot left by Wright State opting out of the event. Returning a largely veteran squad is normally a plus for any coach, but the largely in-tact squad went 0-14 in the WAC a year ago while placing 344th of 356 D-I one programs in scoring (61.4 PPG) and are projected to finish at the bottom of their conference once again. Veterans Xavier Johnson (15.4 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.4 SPG) and Andrew Lewis (12.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.6 APG) will be steady presences for this team, but the supporting cast remains a question mark. Injuries hurt this team a year ago with five of their top six players only seeing the floor together only twice. Ke’Sean Davis (7.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG) will need to take on a larger role as a versatile wing player, and big man Solomon Hunt (6.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG) should be healthy and will look to anchor the paint. Similar to the Illini, they also struggled from three as a team with only Isaiah Lewis shooting better than 34% from deep. The length, athleticism and physicality of this Illini team should overwhelm this struggling Chicago State team. This one will be over early.
Ohio: Plagued by injuries a year ago, the Bobcats finished 8-10 in conference and 17-15 overall. They return dynamic scorers Jason Preston (16.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 7.4 APG) and Ben Vander Plas (15.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, and 2.8 APG). Outside of them, an otherwise young cast of players has gotten a year older and looks to take a step forward towards an NCAA tournament berth. Sophomore Lunden McDay (8.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG) was a regular starter a season ago and had moments as an opportunistic scorer. Ben Roderick (6.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG) came in as a highly regarded recruit and had some success as a shooter and primary bench contributor but was plagued by injuries. Both look primed for breakout season. James Madison transfer Dwight Wilson (9.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG) and junior college transfer Rifen Miguel should give the Bobcats some size and skill to compete upfront to round out the rotation. With so many unknowns and unproven players on the roster, the Illini will overwhelm this team with their depth, veteran savvy and physicality. They will be ready for the tougher back end of their non-conference schedule.
Final Result: 3-0
This next slate of games will give fans an initial feeling of how this season will play out and whether they’re poised for a deep tournament run, as most expect. Seeing top teams in Baylor and Duke and a competitive SEC squad in Missouri will be exciting for fans who have clamored for meaningful basketball for months. Illinois has to dig deeper to solidify its top-10 status in these matchups.
Baylor: Ranked No. 2 nationally, the Bears will be a title contender once again out of the Big 12. Jared Butler (16.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.6 SPG) and MaCio Teague (13.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG) tested the NBA draft process, and both decided to return. Davion Mitchell (9.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.5 SPG) is also back and forms a strong core with Butler and Teague. While the Bears lost a steady shooter in Devonte Bandoo (7.6 PPG, 38.5% on 3FGs) and frontcourt presence in Freddie Gillespie (9.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, team-leading 66 blocked shots), they replace them with size in their freshman class in 6-foot-9 Dain Dainja (ranked 57th by 247Sports) and 7-foot Zach Loveday (just outside the top 100). Transfer Adam Flagler was the Big South Freshman of the Year at Presbyterian before transferring to Baylor, averaging 15.9 PPG and shooting 38.6% from deep. Freshman LJ Cryer is a top-100 recruit and will bring an infusion of scoring. This Baylor team has depth across the board and will likely challenge Kansas again for the top spot in the Big 12. The Illini will have their hands full with this squad and will need complete performance from Dosunmu and Cockburn to lead the way with steady scoring and defensive contributions from Miller, Frazier, Williams and Bezhanishvili. Expect this one to play out with a Final Four type feel; two deep squads looking to solidify their status at the top of the college basketball world.
Duke: The Illini drew the Blue Devils for this year’s early season Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but this matchup should be as competitive as their most recent matchups in 1999 (72-69 Illinois loss) and 2007 (78-77 Illinois loss) have been. The Illini will benefit from the empty Cameron Indoor environment in this year’s road matchup. As with most of Coach K’s recent teams, they saw a great deal of turnover with Vernon Carey, Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley turning pro and Javin DeLaurier and Jack White graduating. This leaves little in returning production outside of sophomore forward Matthew Hurt (9.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and sophomore guard Wendell Moore (7.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.9 APG). As expected, Duke is reloading with the third ranked recruiting class nationally, bringing in No. 13 overall Jalen Johnson, No. 23 Jeremy Roach, No. 26 DJ Steward (Illinois native), No. 27 Mark Williams, No. 41 Jaemyn Brakefield, and No. 52 Henry Coleman. They also add Columbia transfer Patrick Tape (11.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG) to bring a veteran presence to their front court. Particularly strong in isolation and midrange settings, Johnson gives the Blue Devils a versatile, athletic star to build around. He’s surrounded with strong shooting in Hurt, Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire, who all shot above 35% from three a year ago. Duke will be able to run smaller lineups if Hurt can be a steady presence at center or rely on conventional options in Tape and Williams to patrol the post. Look for Tape to see some early minutes at the center if Hurt can’t match up well defensively and Williams can’t adjust to the college game. Roach will take over the point guard duties from the departed Jones. Goldwire, Moore and Brakefield will be pesky defenders for this team, challenging the Illini’s depth and length. Cockburn will likely have a clear matchup advantage inside for the Illini, and they should look to exploit it early, rather than getting in an up-and-down game with Duke’s athletes. It’ll be a hard fought battle, but the veteran presence for the Illini should be the difference in this matchup in a win for the Illini.
Missouri: The Illini will close out the non-conference slate with a visit to Columbia for the Braggin’ Rights game, where they’ll look to avenge last season’s 63-56 defeat against a Missouri team that returns much of its squad. After an encouraging first year, Cuonzo Martin’s squad has finished below .500 in consecutive seasons; 15-16 overall (7-11 conference) a year ago. Dru Smith led the Tigers in scoring (12.7), assists (3.9) and steals (2.1) per game last season and should be the catalyst for the Tigers again this season. Double digit scorers in former Illini Mark Smith (10 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and Xavier Pinson (11.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.8 APG) return as well. Former Illini recruits Jeremiah Tilmon (8.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG) and Javon Pickett (6.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, and 1.4 APG) will be rotational players for the Tigers, with the former still looking to put together a season that his highly regarded recruiting status would suggest he should. Kobe Brown (5.8 PPG and 3.7 RPG) needs to step up to move this team forward, as well as bench contributors Mitchell Smith, Torrence Watson and Parker Braun. The offense really struggled a year ago, finishing among the bottom in the SEC in three-point shooting percentage, assists per game and turnovers per game. There’s some help coming in Hawaii transfer Drew Buggs (9.4 PPG, 5.4 APG, and 4.2 RPG) who can create opportunities for Missouri’s shooters and Ed Chang, a 6-8 forward who averaged 8.2 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 41.4% from three last season. With largely the same teams as last season, I expect the Illini’s infusion of talent and shooting, along with the continued growth of the returning core to be greater than what Missouri has added. The Illini will retake the Braggin Rights’ title.
With the slimmed down schedule and unforeseen potential cancellations of games, the Illini need to make the most of every opportunity to solidify their position in the Big Ten and for a presumptive NCAA Tournament berth. These early season tests will go a long way to determine how the selection committee will view this Illini team. Anything less than a 4-2 finish here would be disastrous and should be considered the floor in the nonconference, given how talented this roster is. If the Illini finish 5-1 or 6-0, the lofty expectations and chatter around this team will be magnified heading into conference play. Given where Illinois ended last season, fans should be excited to see a high powered Illini squad get off to a fast start in this abbreviated nonconference slate.