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Non-Conference Preview: Illinois brash, talented, and a factor in the Big Ten

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Under Brad Underwood, the Illini’s spirit is unapologetically aggressive, even after some key personnel losses. Can Mizzou extend its winning streak in Braggin’ Rights to four games?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the time of narratives, a period where writers across the country try to give us the big picture of a season that lies ahead.

Over in Champaign, Illinois seems content for one trope in particular: the heel turn. Or that’s what a report by The Athletic ($) at Big Ten Conference media day seems to indicate. Apparently, Illini fans like to remind anyone with a Twitter account that they’re owed a share of the Big Ten title after beating Michigan head-to-head last season but finishing behind the Wolverines in win percentage. But Eamon Brennan summed up the Illini’s ethos as such:

Long gone are the days of Lou Henson’s gentility, of Illinois as the fun alternative to Bob Knight’s bullying. What is Illinois basketball now? An aggressive online contingent. A happiness to indulge in grievance, however contrived. A certain intensity, a scrappiness, a willingness to make everyone (and no one) the enemy.

Brennan also noted that a fan asked him ($) whether the Illini, who lost stalwarts like Ayo Dosunmu and Adam Miller, might be better than the one that had its best since 2005. But then here’s coach Brad Underwood’s response to assembled scribes:

“Yes. Now, what does that look like? I don’t know yet. I get it. Ayo was a dominant figure. But how our pieces come together, and the chemistry, you know once you start putting the score up things become a little bit different. Guys have (issues with) their role identification. Some guys become a little unsettled. I don’t think that’ll be the case with our group. We have a lot of very good players, and I’m excited to get that group on the court.”

That kind of honesty, to some ears, might sound like arrogance or even delusion. It also chafes peers. But here’s the thing, if Illinois regresses, it won’t be a complete backslide. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Illini, who return key pieces like Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, and Da’Monte Williams, to be a factor in the race for the Big Ten title and earn a high seed come March. If the bracket breaks right, as in no under-seeded Loyola Chicago lurking in the second round, there might be a Sweet 16 run in the offing.

But hearing Underwood and his players brashly expressing how good it expects to be can be annoying. This is why it’s been satisfying for MU’s fanbase to see the Tigers rattle off three consecutive wins in this series, because there might not be a coach whose personality is as opposed to Underwood’s as Cuonzo Martin.

The question is whether Mizzou’s remade roster, featuring nine newcomers, can dish out a little bit of humility to its eastern rivals.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach | Brad Underwood | Fifth Season

Brad Underwood doesn’t project an air of compromise. Arrogance? Yeah, that’s understandable.

But since showing up in Champaign five years ago, Underwood’s made two essential tweaks. For one, he dialed down the dose of on-ball pressure administered by the Illini. Shifting toward a more gap-based approach lowered the program’s steal percentage but also made it less foul-prone. Meanwhile, defenders were in better rebounding position, curbing second possessions. In exchange for fewer takeaways, the Illini’s overall defensive efficiency improved dramatically, winding up eighth nationally last season, per KenPom.

Secondly, Underwood infused more modern offensive actions into his hallmark spread offense, a move that mirrored a similar choice by Oregon coach Dana Altman. (Altman has said it’s the only way to truly compete for elite recruits at point guard and combo guard.) The scheme works exceptionally well at the mid-major level, leveraging skill and positional flexibility to offset talent gaps with high-major programs.

Underwood didn’t have ball-handlers like Ayo Dosunmu or Andre Curbelo at Stephen F. Austin. With ramped up recruiting came a necessary adaptation: more pick-and-rolls. In Underwood’s first season on the job, the Illini finished 204th among Division I programs in PNR possessions per game, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. Last season? Try 19th. The shift didn’t just benefit Dosunmu, either. Cast as a statuesque big, Kofi Cockburn become one of the best rollers around, averaging 1.49 points per possession, according to Synergy.

Importantly, though, Underwood didn’t have to slow up his pace. Instead, the Illini were ninth among high-majors in the percentage of field-goal attempts (21.1%) taken within 10 seconds of a defensive rebound, per Hoop Math. Once Cockburn ripped down a rebound, Dosunmu, Curbelo, Adam Miller, or Trent Frazier were all capable of taking an outlet pass and accelerating at warp speed.

Whether Underwood keeps those changes in place will be worth monitoring. Dosunmu’s now playing with the hometown Chicago Bulls, and until he tore an ACL this week, Miller looked like a starting lead guard at LSU, where he transferred this offseason. Aside from Frazier and Curbelo, Illinois’ guards profile more as floor-spacers than drivers. I doubt Underwood strips every NBA-inspired action from the offense, but it’s more a question of volume and what counters are available.

There’s also the fact that the entirety of Underwood’s staff turned over. Kentucky pillaged it, making off with Orlando Antigua, no stranger in Lexington, and Chin Coleman, the Illini’s primary operator in Chicago. Oh, and Gonzaga coaxed alum Stephen Gentry back to Spokane. But it’s more likely the staff changes impact recruiting more than the scheme.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Illinois Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Series History | Illinois leads 28-18

You know the cliche: basketball is a game of runs. It also aptly sums up Braggin’ Rights. At the moment, Mizzou’s won three in a row, which came on the heels of the Illini prevailing four consecutive years, but only after MU won four in a row. And before that, the Illini’s dominance lasted nine years.

In the decades to come, this stretch should be called the Pickett Era, a time when an Illinois native spent four years exacting an annual vengeance on a program that basically told the one-time Illini commit to find another college. He wasn’t alone. This stretch of the rival is unique in that Missouri’s roster housed three Metro East natives who crossed the state line. Mark Smith’s lone season in Champaign was, by all accounts, unpleasant, prompting him to transfer west. And Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr connected quickly with Cuonzo Martin as Illinois and MU endured coaching changes.

As for Xavier Pinson, the Simeon Career Academy grad had plenty of battles against Morgan Park, which featured Dosunmu and Miller. So, you could even lump Chicago into the feud. But, at least from Missouri’s perspective, those connections seemingly raised the stakes a little higher and injected a bit more urgency.

Now? Pickett’s the lone player left, and there’s no sign—at least looking at both programs’ commitment lists—that we’ll have the same level of local flavor moving ahead. However, after a one-year hiatus from St. Louis, it’ll be nice to return to a split and loud Enterprise Center this season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What about the team now?

Back in late April, any outlook for the Illini certainly looked gloomy.

Dosunmu’s decision to enter the NBA draft was anything but unexpected, and it wasn’t a surprise Cockburn would assess his stock. And the fact John Calipari wanted to replace Tony Barbee, a longtime lieutenant who took the head coaching gig at Central Michigan, with a familiar face in Antigua was only logical.

But on April 21, Miller stunned the program by entering the transfer portal, landing at LSU in early May. Then, a day after the combo guard, a former top-40 recruit, picked the Tigers, word leaked that his lead recruiter in Coleman was also relocating to Lexington. Then, almost three weeks later, Gentry moved back west to replace Tommy Lloyd, Mark Few’s coach-in-waiting at Gonzaga.

If you’re keeping track of all this, Underwood faced the possibility of seeing seven of his top eight scorers and his entire staff move on. After a season that saw the Illini earn a share of a Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, that’s quite the comedown.

Steadily, though, the forecast shifted.

Most importantly, Cockburn pulled his name out of the draft and returned to the fold, but not before flirting with a transfer to Kentucky or Florida State. Keeping hold of King Kofi assured the Illini of having a potent PNR duo, but the program got another boost when Frazer and combo guard Da’Monte Williams opted to use their super seniors to run it back. Ultimately, Miller is the only unexpected loss—albeit a major one.

Now, on the eve of the season, Illinois finds itself returning 64.2 percent of minutes, 60 percent of its scoring, and 56.9 percent of its possessions. There’s also no doubt Curbelo’s holding the keys after earning the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year honors. Few lead guards can transfix your attention the way Curbelo does. There’s the 6-2, 175-pound dynamo splitting defenders and whipping a no-look dime. Or spinning off a defender in the lane and banking in a floater from a ridiculous release angle. And look out when lofts up a lob.

Curbelo’s inane creativity can sometimes go too far (25.4 TO%), but he averaged a stellar 1.135 points per possession as a pick-and-roll passer, per Synergy. And while he’s not a big guard, he’s still an average finisher (56 FG%) around the rim. Besides curbing turnovers, there’s another obvious area for improvement: jump-shooting. Underwood doesn’t need his primary initiator burying 3-balls from the logo, but Curbelo (9.1 ppg, 4.2 apg) needs to improve the 29.2 percent clip he posted on jumpers. Knocking down open spot-ups or canning one-dribble pull-ups when defenders go under screens would at least make opponents hesitant to stick to drop coverage.

As for Cockburn, who averaged 17.9 points and 9.5 rebounds, it’s a matter of how much room the 7-foot, 285-pound goliath has left. At 1.14 PPP, the junior finished in the 96th percentile for individual efficiency and had underrated mobility tagging rollers in space (0.721 PPP allowed) at the other end.

This offseason, Underwood hints that the focus for the second-team All-American shifted toward micro-skills like comfort picking-and-popping or making plays out of short rolls. Should that happen, it might alter some perceptions among NBA scouts and add a new wrinkle to the two-man game with Curbelo.

It’ll also be interesting if Frazier’s role in the offense returns to his first two years in the program, where he was the primary perimeter threat. But, more importantly, the Illini held on to an All-Defensive team pick who also showed he could be a potent off-ball spacer, hitting at 36.2 percent from 3-point range. But in a pinch, he can also serve as a primary ball-handler, like he did when Dosunmu suffered a broken nose.

Then there’s Williams (5.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), whose sturdy 6-3, 215-pound frame allowed him to be a switchable defender for spots one through four. Like Frazier, Williams also improved his perimeter shooting, allowing him to function as an undersized 3-and-D wing.

With that quartet as a core, Underwood’s rotation nicely balances creation, shooting, and defensive tenacity. If there’s any intrigue, it’s at the combo forward spot. Jacob Grandison, a 6-6, 205-pound redshirt junior, looks like he’ll get the first crack. Last season, he displaced Williams as the starter, supplying defense, rebounding, and making the kinds of passes and spacing cuts to keep the offense flowing.

However, Underwood could roll out something closer to a twin-post look, using Florida transfer Omar Payne—a former top-50 recruit—at the four spot. Payne, who was beaten out by All-SEC pick Colin Castleton in Gainesville, is long (7-5 wingspan) and bouncy, making him an ideal rim protector and lob threat.

In the backcourt, the Illini are pinning their hopes on Austin Hutcherson, a Division III transfer who put up 20.0 points per game, who finally has a healthy back after it cost him last season. Illinois also reached into the transfer portal for Utah combo guard Alfonso Plummer, a microwave scorer unafraid of putting up difficult shots. There is also a pair of top-100 freshmen—Brandin Podziemski and Luke Goode—who might be among the better shooters in the 2022 class.

Unlike a vocal contingent of Illini Twitterati, I think most experts have rated the Underwood’s crew appropriately. Big Ten beat writers picked them to finish third in the conference, barely edging out Ohio State but clearly behind Michigan and Purdue. ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi forecasts this group to earn another protected seed come March. And AP voters tabbed them No. 11 in the preseason poll.

On paper and in pixels, MU will enter this game as an underdog. (Right now, the forecasted margin has Illinois winning by 12 points.) But there will be a temptation to look at MU’s recent run of form and discount the algorithm—even if the economics tells us the hot-hand theory is a fallacy.

This season feels different because, as I mentioned, the roster composition for MU has inverted. It’s not just the fact there are nine newcomers. It’s the fact that none of them, for lack of a better term, have as much skin in the game. For example, freshman Yaya Keita is a St. Louis kid, but the Mali native didn’t grow up steeped in the rivalry. As for the other two in-state freshmen, Anton Brookshire and Trevon Brazile, their roots in Springfield and proximity to Fayetteville might make Arkansas a date they circle.

Put another way: there’s now a shortage of dudes who would love to twist a dagger into the Illini. For the bulk of this roster, this will be their first exposure to the rivalry at all.

Over the past three seasons, that ire seemingly made MU a tad more engaged in executing the scout, that much more competitive on 50-50 balls, and just a smidge more locked in. Unfortunately, this season, the game caps a brutal closing stretch in non-conference, one where MU renews the Border War, slogs through finals week, hosts Utah, and then has to pivot to another potential top-15 opponent.

As for the Illini, there’s enough talent, continuity, and familiarity with stacking challenging games in short periods to think they’ll be ready. Maybe this is the end of MU’s short-term dominance. Or perhaps Javon Pickett goes berserk in his farewell. Regardless, we know what role Illinois wants to play.