Brad Underwood has not shied away from competition in the early going.
This young Illini team has already had showdowns with two top-20 teams in Las Vegas and is coming off a stiff test against a now 13th ranked Maryland team in College Park. On Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, they may be in for their biggest challenge yet as they take on No. 2 Texas.
The Longhorns have been picked by many as a Final Four contender and present Illinois with an opportunity for perhaps its most marquee non-conference win of the Brad Underwood era.
Let’s take a look at what Illinois will have to deal with.
The Longhorns’ season so far
Chris Beard has begun his second season at the helm in Austin a perfect 6-0, with two Top 25 wins that have stood out.
The Longhorns blew the brakes off No. 18 Gonzaga on November 16th, 93-74, in a game they controlled from the opening tip. They also held on to knock off No. 21 Creighton 72-67, holding the Bluejays to just 15% from 3 in a stifling defensive effort.
Texas comes into this matchup ranked 2nd in the nation according to KenPom. They rank 15th in offensive efficiency and 3rd in defensive efficiency, one of just two teams, along with UConn, to be top 15 in both.
Tuesday night’s game at Madison Square Garden will be Texas’ first game away from the state of Texas this season, however. The Illini have already experienced three games away from home and have played in their share of high-intensity games, with this one expected to be no different in New York.
Players to Watch
G Tyrese Hunter
The Longhorns are led by Iowa State transfer and 2021-22 Big 12 Freshman of the Year Tyrese Hunter. The 6-foot point guard has gotten off to a great start at his new home, averaging 16 points per game while shooting 54.4% from the floor and 37% from 3. Despite his smaller frame, he’s also a fantastic perimeter defender that will likely challenge Illinois’ young guards.
G Marcus Carr
Illini fans know this name well from Carr’s days at Minnesota. Carr is now in his fifth year of college and second in Austin, averaging 15.5 points per game along with 4.2 assists and 2 steals. He’s been known as a very hot and cold player throughout his career but has started to find some consistency, scoring in double figures in all six of Texas’ games this season. The Illini will need to stay connected to him defensively because he is the Longhorns’ most explosive offensive threat.
F Dillon Mitchell
Dillon Mitchell, a 5-star freshman ranked in the top 10 of the 2022 class by 247 Sports, is by far the most dynamic athlete Illinois has seen, and maybe will see, all year, averaging 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game thus far. The 6-foot-8 wing can jump out of the gym, can fly up the court despite his size, and is an extremely versatile defender that can match up with anyone and cause tons of problems with his length. He hasn’t yet proven to be a threat from the outside (0 3-point attempts this season), but if Illinois lets him get into the paint or out in transition, they’re going to have a lot of trouble stopping the potential lottery pick.
F Timmy Allen
Timmy Allen, a fifth-year senior who transferred to Texas from Utah two seasons ago, was named a preseason All-Big 12 selection but has not quite lived up to those expectations through his first six games. Allen has found himself in foul trouble in a few games and hasn’t yet gotten going offensively (6.3 PPG). Still, this is a guy who was expected to be one of the top scorers in the Big 12 and one who came into 2022-23 averaging 14.6 PPG for his career, so he is more than capable of having a big night against the Illini.
G Sir’Jabari Rice — a 5th year senior guard who transferred to Texas from New Mexico State, doing a little bit of everything for the Longhorns averaging 10.3 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game.
F Dylan Disu — a versatile, 6-foot-9 forward who gives the Longhorns an inside-out presence, being able to work in the interior while also stepping out on the perimeter, can knock down the occasional three, and can switch onto both guards and bigs defensively.
F Christian Bishop — another 5th year senior who at only 6-foot-7, plays much bigger than he is and gives Texas an interior presence off the bench.
G Arterio Morris — the second of Texas’ 5-star freshmen who has struggled from the field early in his college career (35.3% FG, 18.2% 3P), but possesses a ton of talent and the ability to attack the rim with his quickness and handle.
What does Illinois need to do to win?
When you look at this Texas team, they mirror Illinois in a lot of ways. They have a ton of length and play a switching defense that can frustrate opponents in the half court. As a result, they’re capable of forcing a lot of turnovers and are at their best when they can get out and run in transition and showcase their elite athleticism in the open court.
Illinois’ transition defense will have to be much better on Tuesday than what we saw against Maryland, especially in the first half. The Illini’s young guards in Skyy Clark and Jayden Epps will also need to take care of the basketball, something the team has a whole has been much better at the last two games after some early season struggles (9.5 turnovers per game against Syracuse and Maryland).
The Longhorns’ biggest weakness is their 3-point shooting. Texas has shot just 28.9% from 3 as a team and outside of their starting backcourt of Hunter and Carr, don’t have anybody on their roster who has shot above 32% this season. If Illinois can force them into the half court and keep them from getting downhill and into the paint, Texas could struggle to make shots and give Illinois chances to make runs.
Additionally, Texas doesn’t have a true big man and can struggle to matchup with opposing big men in the post. Look for the Illini to try to get Dain Dainja some early touches when he checks in, as exploiting his size mismatch down low could be a key for Illinois to get some easy buckets on this highly ranked defensive team.
This is going to be a high-level basketball game between two teams who have lofty expectations come March. Illinois has shown it can compete in any game but struggled to execute in the final minutes of close games against Virginia and Maryland with their young, inexperienced roster. While this will be their toughest task yet, a victory on Tuesday night would go a long way on the Illini’s resume while also adding a massive confidence-boost to this group as Big Ten play approaches.
Let’s have some fun.