“You never doubt Tom Izzo. His teams should always be grandfathered into the top 25.”
- Kevin Blackistone, ESPN
Michigan State pushed Gonzaga to the limit and then beat Kentucky. Already, Tom Izzo has his Spartans looking like the team in the Big Ten that the national media is fawning over. Sportswriters love the East Lansing tradition of playing a tough early schedule to steel your roster for February and March. It has resulted in a grand total of one national championship for St. Thomas of East Lansing.
That is one more than the No. 19 Fighting Illini during the Izzo era in the Big Ten.
The Continental Tire Main Event will be a rock solid early test for an Illini team with natty aspirations. All four teams are top-20. It’s the kind of challenge that teams that make deep runs can either overcome or learn from. So will this be a beautiful forecast or a painful lesson?
Let’s take a look at the competition.
Tyger Campbell is one of the top point guards in college basketball. And yes, this is the same Tyger Cambpell who was an Illini target in the class of 2018. He leads the loaded 3-0 Bruins into Las Vegas. The Friday night showdown will be a huge early test for true freshman Skyy Clark. Playing against a potential All-American on both ends of the floor will require Clark to showcase the talent pedigree that once made him a five-star prospect.
UCLA is a veteran team with multiple contributors from a 2021 Final Four squad. But they are also armed with a top-15 recruiting class. Freshman combo guard Amari Bailey has averaged almost 12 points per game. First-year big man Adem Bona has averaged 9 points and 6.5 rebounds in his first two games,
Final Four veterans Jaylen Clark (17.3 PPG) and Jaime Jacquez (12.7 PPG) help pace Mick Cronin’s balanced attack. A balanced attack that resembles the Illini. Head Coach Brad Underwood has a physically and stylistically versatile, switchable roster capable of scoring quickly and seamlessly adjusting to matchups.
This team was built for games like the one it will play on Friday in Las Vegas against the Bruins.
If you want to feel old, Scott Drew is in his 20th season coaching No. 5 Baylor. The Bears are a popular favorite to win the Big 12, and for good reason. Their track record speaks for itself. They have been a top seed in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons. And two members of the Illini’s current rotation are Baylor transfers: Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja.
Make no mistake about it, Coach Underwood sees Baylor as a blueprint for the Illini program he wants to build. He wants a program that can make deep tournament runs.
Speaking to The Athletic over the summer, Underwood spoke more in depth about how the Illini have rebuilt.
“We’ve been very intentional with trying to recruit and how we’ve gone about it. I think I enjoy coaching this way. I think there’s versatility. I think there’s speed. I think we have depth. We could be aggressive. I think it plays in the postseason.”
That sounds a lot like the Baylor blueprint. Baylor, like Illinois, is also able to recruit at an elite level. Five-star freshman guard Keyonte George is averaging 16.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 6 APG in three games for the Bears. He is joined in Baylor’s backcourt by Adam Flagler, who is averaging nearly 18 points and 8 assists per game this season.
If the Illini have to face Baylor in Las Vegas, it will require a complete effort from not only Skyy Clark, but longer defenders like R.J. Melendez and Terrence Shannon Jr. Both have shown great defensive intensity in the early going. Both have positional versatility to contend with Baylor’s deep, varied attack. With upperclassmen Jalen Bridges and LJ Cryer also averaging over 14 PPG, the Bears attack comes from multiple fronts and looks.
Before talking about basketball, I’d be remiss if I didn’t send best wishes to the students at the University of Virginia, the football program, and the Charlottesville community after this week’s tragic events. It’s difficult to think about sports in the wake of such a horrific event, and our hearts are with you.
The No. 16 Cavaliers have continued to be a national powerhouse under head coach Tony Bennett. The program has used a foundation of consistent defensive excellence to match high level recruiting of student athletes with multi-positional skill. They are tailor made for the modern game despite their traditionally slower pace.
If Illinois plays Virginia, it will be a clash of styles. Underwood’s Illini take pride in getting good shots quickly. The 2019 National Champions will look to stymie Illinois’ uptempo style.
Virginia comes into Las Vegas with a top-15 recruiting class, led by Illinois targets Isaac McNeely and Isaac Traudt. While Traudt is taking a redshirt, McNeely is averaging over 25 minutes in the Wahoos balanced attack. Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin is averaging 14.5 points in Virginia’s first two games of the season.
McNeely, Franklin, and ECU transfer Ben Vander Plas make a formidable, stylistically diverse scoring trio for the Illini to handle. If this matchup materializes, early season standout Dain Dainja will likely be called upon early and often. The combination of Coleman Hawkins and Dainja is a lot to handle, but Dainja in particular can get Virginia’s talented bigs in foul trouble.