The Fighting Illini host the Fighting Irish on Monday as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Illinois is coming off an ugly win against Texas-Rio Grande Valley, while the Irish lost 73-67 to Texas A&M in Las Vegas.
The Illini will be without Trent Frazier and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. Brad Underwood did not hold a practice on Saturday due to what he described as the flu bug. “As I’m walking down the court today, I have no idea who I’ve got,” Underwood said on Sunday. Andre Curbelo and Jacob Grandison missed the game on Friday with injuries, so they could also be out again.
Illinois’ most important player so far has been Kofi Cockburn. Underwood didn’t mention anything about Cockburn being out, so hopefully that means he’ll be available. Regardless of who the Illini put on the court, they’ll be facing another high major opponent.
The Last Few Years
It’s hard to imagine Notre Dame without head coach Mike Brey. He has a record of 448-248 overall and 207-159 in the ACC alone. In his 22 years in South Bend, he’s made the NCAA Tournament 12 times and has only had four losing seasons. Unfortunately for Brey, two of those losing seasons were in the last three years.
After getting the 15th best recruiting class in 2018, Brey went 14-19 (3-15) in the 2018-2019 season and failed to sign any recruits in 2019. In the 2019-2020 season, the Irish went 20-12 (10-10), but the postseason was canceled due to COVID-19. The lack of recruiting caught up with Notre Dame last year as they went 11-15 (7-11). At this point, the Irish haven’t been to the dance since 2016-2017.
Notre Dame returned its top three scorers from last season, and they can all stretch the floor. Dane Goodwin (15.0 PPG) and Blake Wesley (10.8 PPG) are both 6-foot-6 guards and can shoot it from deep. Nate Laszewski is a 6-foot-10 forward who has a career 34.9% from 3P. The Irish also added Yale-transfer Paul Atkinson, Jr., a 6-foot-9 forward who stays close to the basket but has excellent passing skills.
Notre Dame won’t beat themselves. They’ve only turned it over 11.8 times per game, compared to 17.2 turnovers per game for the Illini. And that’s high for a Mike Brey-coached squad. They’re shooting an even 70.0% from the line, led by Goodwin who’s 93.8% from the stripe.
The Irish typically play man, but also play zone occasionally. In Brad Underwood’s presser, he mentioned that they’re a great catch-and-shoot team, sneaky in transition, and deep off the bench. When Illinois is healthy, they’re the deeper team, but health has been an issue for Illinois this year.
The good news for Illinois is that the Irish don’t have the size and inside presence that Illinois does. They’ve only been able to grab 9.8 offensive rebounds per game compared to Illinois’ 14.8. The Irish don’t have anyone who can go one on one with Kofi Cockburn, but they’ll likely double team him every time he gets the ball. Kofi has improved at passing out of the double team this year, and he’ll need to continue to do so.
What to Expect
Illinois is the deeper and more talented team, but they haven’t been able to stay healthy. Even with a healthy Andre Curbelo, Illinois has really struggled to move the ball. If Curbelo is out, Illinois will again rely heavily on Kofi Cockburn and the three-point shooting of Alfonso Plummer. We know that Kofi can dominate this game, but his teammates will need to step up and lift him up.