With Missouri releasing their season non-conference schedule, we’re taking a brief look at each of their opponents. You can catch up with the previous posts in the series here:
No matter how much previewing on the season you do, you can’t complete a non-conference preview without talking about Bragging Rights.
The annual rivalry game played in St. Louis is one both fan bases look forward to, and this year shouldn’t be any different. Missouri broke Illinois’ five game winning streak last year, but both programs were disappointments during the season.
It’s been a long slog for the Illini over the last six years. When Bill Self ran the program from 2000 - 2003, and during Bruce Weber’s first three years right after, Illinois was one of the top programs in the country. But in the 12 years since, there have been only three NCAA appearances in contrast to Missouri’s six appearances. Considering how down the Tigers have largely been lately, you can understand the level of fan frustration at Illinois.
It’s a pivotable year for both programs but the fan pressure might be mounting a little more on the east side of the Mississippi River, as the Illini have won just 14 and 12 games in back-to-back seasons. Not quite Kim Anderson bad, but close to it for a once very proud program.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Last season: 12-21, 84 in KenPom
Torvik Projection: 15
Head Coach: Brad Underwood
Two years ago, I applauded the hire of Brad Underwood in Champaign. It was an aggressive move for a coach who looked like he was on the rise in the industry. But overall, his tenure has largely fallen flat due to some of the previous staff’s miscalculations on talent, as well as his own questionable decisions, mostly with the roster. Taking over the program, Underwood was known for his unique offensive approach, but since he’s been at Illinois, they’ve largely pursued a more traditional approach by going after slow and mostly offensively-challenged big men.
He’s been able to develop guards, though, and the guard play is one of the reasons the Illini are - like Missouri - a dark horse team to break out this year.
RETURNING PLAYERS OF NOTE:
- Ayo Dosunmu — 74.5% %min, 13.8 ppg
- Trent Frazier — 73.3% %min, 13.7 ppg
- Giorgi Bezhanishvili — 64.8% %min, 12.5 ppg
The top guy to keep an eye on is Dosunmu. Ayo passed on a chance to test the waters for the NBA last year to return, and he could feasibly be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. He’s a long-armed combo guard who is capable of making all kinds of shots around the rim, and his jump shot is developing. He made nearly 35% from deep last season, and both he and Frazier form a formidable duo in the back court.
One of the more underrated pieces for Illinois last year was how Bezhanishvili played down the stretch. He’s a skilled big man who actually DOES fit Underwood’s system and mans the mid-post quite well. He’s a capable passer who occasionally tries to do too much, but he was also a freshman last season.
With the combination of Frazier and Dosunmu — along with Andres Feliz — the ball handling duties should be solid. With Bezhanishvili and newcomer Kofi Cockburn, the interior should be good as well. The key for Illinois is— what will they get on the wing? If Underwood can find some answers on the wing for the Illini, it’s very possible they surprise in the Big 10 this year.