CHAMPAIGN, Il. — Brad Underwood told the media not to underestimate Indiana (PA), and he proved Friday night why the comments were no coachspeak.
The Division II powerhouse kept the game close throughout the first half, while No. 11 Illinois capped its preseason schedule with a 94-79 win at State Farm Center.
But Friday night was about more than just this upcoming season, as the Illini celebrated their 2021 Big Ten Tournament Championship, and welcomed Ayo Dosunmu back home to receive his championship ring.
The good vibes of the celebration didn’t exactly carry over to the game, as the Illini fought tooth and nail throughout. While Underwood’s crew leading for most of the night, they couldn’t seem to get over the double-digit hump, leading Indiana (PA) by single-digits most of the contest. However, Illinois’ talent and physical advantage took its toll on the Crimson Hawks, and the Illini pulled away for a 15-point win.
Being an exhibition game against a D-II opponent, taking anything away from this game but individual performances is tough. Simply put, it’s hard to get up for games that don’t matter. Coaches can say the right things, players can practice the right way, but when the lights shine, well, less than bright, it can be hard to lock in. Still, the Illini ended up winning by 15. Simply staying ahead and winning the game without any worry is a good enough performance going into meaningful play.
Andre Curbelo’s play could partly explain the absence of a blowout. The star point guard was at his best and worst Friday, flashing for double-digit points and assists, but also turning the ball over far too much. The exhibition games have been concerning for Curbelo, who has a flair for the dramatic that can lead to an excess of turnovers, and so far, that has been exactly the case. Fortunately, the most likely case is that Curbelo tightens his game up as the regular season goes along and he morphs into his star self.
Kofi Cockburn was again unstoppable, at one point scoring 11 of Illinois’ last 15 points. The big man simply cannot be contained if the opposing team does not have a physical, talented force to match him. Cockburn will absolutely feast against teams that cannot adequately match up with him, and even if they can, he still has the ability to dominate.
Coleman Hawkins was a pleasant surprise, doing a little bit of everything, flashing his length, and shooting ability. Hawkins’ play seems to have entrenched him in a key role backing up Jacob Grandison, perhaps playing alongside Omar Payne on the second unit. A 6-foot-10 sophomore, Hawkins can be an X-factor this year with his size and skill, and should be watched as the season progresses.
Late in the game, Underwood appeared set to see what he has before the regular season starts, going with a lineup of Payne, Hawkins, Melendez, Grandison and Podziemski. All three freshmen have gotten run in the exhibition games, and look for them to get regular season time too before conference play begins.
On the flipside, Payne really only got time with the above rotation and little else, totaling 9 minutes after little playing time last game. Payne may not be as ready as many believed, and with Cockburn’s necessity to the team, the transfer big man could only be needed sparingly.
- Kofi Cockburn – 21 points (8-10 FG), 8 rebounds, 1 block
- Andre Curbelo – 14 points, 12 assists, 10 turnovers
- Coleman Hawkins – 16 points (5-10 FG), 9 rebounds
Andre Curbelo recorded a triple double, not that anyone is happy about it. The sophomore point guard recorded double digit points, assists... and turnovers. It’s the first triple double of that kind for Curbelo, and hopefully the last.
Jackson State, in a game that actually matters!
Illinois officially begins its 2021-22 season against the Tigers on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.. The Illini will also return to a regular season Orange Krush crowd for the first time in 20 months.