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Illinois is DEEP through two games

Everyone is playing a role so far.

Jackson State v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

This week saw the official return of your Fighting Illini’s men’s basketball with games against Jackson State and Arkansas State. We got our first taste of the post-Dosunmu era and what this team will be like going forward.

Growth opportunities were plentiful as the Illini have started the season shorthanded, thanks to the Kofi Cockburn suspension and injuries to other regulars. While the talent level of these two opponents is far different from what the Illini will see come conference play, these early-season matchups are key in establishing the eventual rotation and seeing growth and development from the offseason.

Especially with the depleted rotation the Illini have this week, it’s exciting to see the young players and seasoned rotation players get more opportunities to solidify playing time for themselves.

What We Saw

vs. Jackson State

Despite missing their two main ballhandlers in Curbelo and Frazier and interior presence in Cockburn, forwards Jacob Grandison and Coleman Hawkins stepped up to steer the ship for the Illini. Grandison brought the main scoring punch (20 points on 7-10 shooting, 5 rebounds), while Hawkins notched then-career highs in points (13), rebounds (8), assists (3), and steals (4). Hawkins is solidifying his role in the frontcourt alongside Cockburn, with Coach Brad Underwood saying: “My expectation for Coleman is probably a lot higher than his is. He has no idea how good he’s going to be.”

Other rotation players made an impact as well with Omar Payne recording 3 blocks and Bosmans-Verdonk pulling down 10 rebounds. These early returns bode well for an Illinois team that remains largely untested and unproven behind Cockburn in the frontcourt. Freshman Luke Goode also poured in a couple threes to help the Illini finish 43% from beyond the arc on the night. These kind of efforts will be needed for spurts among the second unit when tougher games come along.

The Illini went through some struggles with ballhandling and playmaking since they lacked their primary creators, and they will need to get them back to establish a more consistent identity offensively against stiffer competition. However, this game demonstrated that this team is deep with versatile skillsets that will enable Underwood to run many different lineup combinations and rotations that many opponents may be unable to match up with.

vs. Arkansas State

The Illini welcomed back star playmakers Frazier and Curbelo for this matchup, and the offense thrived as a result.

Curbelo dazzled with 7 assists to go along with 2 steals and 8 points, while stirring some controversy with the opposing bench along the way.

Grandison (15 points, 6 rebounds) and Coleman Hawkins (17 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks) once again steadied the Illini attack in the absence of Cockburn, finishing with 32 points and 18 rebounds between them. Both once again showcased their inside/outside versatility on the offensive end, able to take opponents off the bounce while scoring both inside and outside the arc in set shooting situations.

Bosmans-Verdonk also gave valuable minutes off the bench, finishing with 8 points and 10 rebounds. Their defense also proved stingy all night, forcing 19 total turnovers and rejecting 5 shots. The Illini’s hopes for a conference and national championship will depend on their signature fast-paced offense and active defense, and they have been equipped with the pieces to execute on both, despite not being at full strength so far this season.

Underwood has his rotation rounding into form as they head into a challenging game against Marquette, their final game without Cockburn. We will see how the Illini’s game travels on the road for the first time this season when they take on the Golden Eagles.