The Illinois Fighting Illini embark on their first road trip of the season, visiting the Marquette Golden Eagles Monday night in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. This event wasn’t held last year due to the pandemic, and Illinois hasn’t competed since 2018, an 88-80 home loss to the Georgetown Hoyas.
The Illini are 1-2 all-time in the Gavitt Games and head to Milwaukee for their first meeting with Marquette since 1993.
This will also be the final game of Kofi Cockburn’s season-opening suspension. Austin Hutcherson’s status is still to be determined while he recovers from a bruised tailbone.
Marquette and Illinois have been on similar paths for the past decade-plus — programs with a rich tradition that had recently experienced a lack of success in March. However, the Illini have found the coach to help their resurgence, while Marquette is hoping a new head coach will spearhead a turnaround of its own.
The Golden Eagles finished 83rd in KenPom, ending the season 13-14 overall and 8-11 in the Big East. Marquette earned notable wins against Wisconsin & Creighton, but the school fired coach Steve Wojciechowski following the season, his seventh in Milwaukee. Wojo was a respectable 128-95 during his tenure but never won an NCAA Tournament game.
Marquette lost all five starters from its 2020-21 roster, four via transfer — Jamal Cain, Dawson Garcia, Theo John, and Kobe McEwen.
New head coach Shaka Smart is trying to rebuild Marquette’s program after Wojo was shown the door. Smart most recently spent six seasons with Texas, leading them to an NIT title and three NCAA Tournament appearances. But the Longhorns never advanced past the first round of the Big Dance and went just 51-56 in Big 12 games.
Like Illinois, Marquette enters Monday night’s game at 2-0. While the Fighting Illini have dominated their first two opponents — winning by a combined score of 163-100 — the Golden Eagles have had to thwart multiple upset bids already.
Marquette only had a one-point halftime lead in its season debut against SIU-Edwardsville (No. 320 in KenPom), ultimately winning by 11. The Golden Eagles then struggled to close out New Hampshire (No. 215 KenPom) at home Friday night, winning 75-70.
The Golden Eagles have been paced in the early going by former Maryland guard Darryl Morsell (pictured above). The 6-foot-5 grad transfer leads Marquette with 23.5 PPG on 60% shooting from the field.
Oklahoma transfer Kur Kuath is the tallest player on the Eagles’ roster. At 6-foot-10, he’s shown he can be an effective rim protector but needs to improve his rebounding, which I bring up because...
Marquette has been outrebounded 80-76 through its first two games against SIUE and New Hampshire. Let’s just assume merely for the sake of argument that Illinois is better than those two teams. Even without the presence of Kofi Cockburn, the Illini have cleaned up on the glass, netting a +22 rebounding margin so far.
What to Expect
This will be an upgrade in competition for each team, and each team can use a victory to fortify its season resume. But the Eagles will experience growing pains this season under Shaka Smart. Marquette has essentially been a two-man team between Morsell — the 2020-21 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year — and forward Justin Lewis, and the Fighting Illini have depth at every spot on the floor. While it’s true that the most talented team doesn’t always win, it’s also true that you’d rather have more talent than your opponent.
Illinois enters a meaty part of their schedule — seven of their next eight contests are against high-major opponents, including Big Ten games against Rutgers & Iowa — and can’t afford an early stumble.
Having a healthy Andre Curbelo & Trent Frazier certainly help the Illini’s chances to remain unbeaten. Shaka Smart’s “havoc” defense could run Illinois into extra turnovers, so Brad Underwood needs to exercise some caution with his gameplan. But I anticipate the Illini to leave Milwaukee with a well-earned win.