Illinois will suit up on Monday evening against the Cincinnati Bearcats, its first game back since the disappointing loss to Marquette just a week ago in Milwaukee. The matchup will take place in Kansas City, Mo., as part of the Hall of Fame Classic. The Illini will play in the first of two games tonight. Arkansas vs. Kansas State is the other contest on the docket, setting up a potential rematch against former Illini head coach Bruce Weber.
Since the departure of Mick Cronin after the 2018-19 season, the Bearcats have missed the NCAA tournament for consecutive seasons after dancing for nine years straight. Wes Miller enters his first season in charge of Cincinnati and is looking to right the ship. For the past 10 seasons, Miller has been at UNC Greensboro where he took the program to the big dance twice, including last season. Leading scorer Keith Williams is gone, but the Bearcats return their next three leading scorers and also welcome six transfers into the program, three of which followed Miller over from UNCG.
Cincinnati comes into this one undefeated at 4-0, but haven’t come close to playing a team close to Illinois’ caliber. Double digits win over Evansville, Alabama A&M and Presbyterian gave the Bearcats an opportunity to get their feet wet with a new coach. The team's most impressive win came against a bottom-feeding Georgia squad, where the Bearcats narrowly edged the Bulldogs by 5 on Nov. 13. Averaging 76.5 points per game and a 21-point scoring margin, the Illini will likely see a confident Bearcats team on Monday evening. However, the Bearcats have yet to be tested outside of their home court.
Jeremiah Davenport will likely draw the most attention from the Illini. The only returning double-digit scorer, Davenport has gotten off to an impressive start on the season averaging 12.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, shooting 37% from behind the arc, and averaging 22 minutes per game. David Dejulius is another returner for the Bearcats, averaging 11.3 PPG through 4 games with a game-high 21 points vs Alabama A&M. Outside of Davenport and Dejulius, Mika Adam-Woods is another returner for the Bearcats. He is averaging a team-high 25.3 minutes per game and 7.8 PPG. Viktor Lakhin, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman didn't see any action last season, but has seen significant minutes so far this year.
Transfers play a significant role on this roster as well. Between Ody Oguama, Abdul Ado, and John Newman the Bearcats added a ton of depth and experience through the transfer portal this off-season. Oguama spent two seasons at Wake forest starting 42 games. On the year, he has averaged 8.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG and 15 MPG. Ado joins the Bearcats after spending four seasons with Mississippi State and starting in 130 games. Last season he earned SEC All-Defensive honors, however has only averaged 13.5 minutes so far this season. Lastly, Newman, a Clemson transfer with 40 career starts joins the Bearcats after an underwhelming junior campaign. Newman is averaging the second-most minutes and 7.5 PPG. Hayden Koval, A.J. McGinnis, and Jarett Hensely all played for Miller last year at Greensboro. Despite none of them averaging more than 20 minutes a game last year, they each have significant experience within Millers' system.
The Bearcats have put together a roster with some solid veteran pieces, but are not seen as a tournament team right now. It is no secret the Illini are more skilled at every position in their matchup with Cincinnati. However, this is a hungry Bearcat roster that is looking to pick up a statement win in their first game outside of Fifth Third Arena.