clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Non-Conference Preview: Illinois

Brag the rights!

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve made our way through nearly the entire non-conference schedule. I’ve made my peace with the early lack of intrigue, and I get why Missouri chose the route of a very easy slate of games. At least there will be action soon and we’ll get to talk about it.

We’re down to the final two games, with the Braggin’ Rights game looming. OnThursday, December 22nd, we hope to see Missouri exact some revenge from a pretty ugly game a year ago.

The rest of the Non-Con (complete with links to the post):

If you’ve kept tabs on Illinois over the years, you know things have been pretty up and down since Bill Self left for the Kansas job in 2003. Bruce Weber rocked out with Self’s players, but things petered out a bit in 2008 and he only made two NCAA Tournaments in five seasons, leading Illinois to make a coaching change. John Groce was that choice, and Groce held the line with the program he was left with. In five seasons he made one tournament, and while they were never really bad, they weren’t very good, either. They needed new life.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach | Brad Underwood | 6th Season

The Illini leadership pivoted and went after the former Stephen F Austin coach and current Oklahoma State coach in 2017. Brad Underwood was a bit of a hot commodity after steering SFA to just a single conference loss in three seasons. He then took Oklahoma State back to the NCAA Tournament in his lone season there. Then he jumped on the bucks Illinois offered, and it was a lot.

Underwood came in heralded, but it took him a bit to get things going. In Year 1 they were 14-18 and won just 4 conference games. The next year was better in conference, but worse overall at 12-21 and 7-13, respectively. But in year three, just when the seat was getting pretty warm underneath him, Underwood got it going. After a rough start in non-con, Underwood’s team started 8-2 in the Big 10, and used that start to wedge out a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Then the good news came in— Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn both returned to school for another year — and things took off. They were the 4th best team in that season, won the Big 10, and took a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Last year things were good, but not great. Ayo left for the NBA, but Kofi came back, and Illinois again sat atop the league rankings. But a tougher non-conference setup and a few worse losses left them as a 4-seed, and they lost to the criminally under-seeded Houston Cougars. For now, though, Underwood looks entrenched on the bench in Champaign.

Series History | Illinois leads 29-18

Missouri Tigers v Illinois Fighting Illini Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Interesting footnote here: Illinois has played Missouri more times than anyone who isn’t currently in the Big 10 conference. And Penn State just narrowly edged out the Tigers with their 50 meetings. It really is a good rivalry and remains fun on both sides. I wish Mizzou won more often, but hey... I’ll take a guaranteed fun rivalry non-con game each year over many other match ups.

Traditionally, the back and forth between these teams has been very streaky, though the Illini finally overcame the Javon Pickett Curse last year when they whipped Mizzou by 25 points. Prior to that, Missouri had won the previous three games, Illinois the previous five, and Mizzou the previous four. Before that was a dark period, and I’m forgetting what transpired. Sorry.

The Braggin’ Rights game as we know it has been played continuously since 1983, and Illinois won the first 8 times. But just twice as the lower-ranked team, and one of those was a 4 vs 5 matchup in 1989 when the Flyin’ Illini took down Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler-led Missouri team.

The worst loss between the two teams was not last year, actually. It was in 2005 when Illinois, coming off a National Title game appearance, whipped Mizzou by 32 points and Quin Snyder had popcorn dumped on him by a fan. Mizzou’s biggest win came in 1994 when the then-unranked Tigers beat the 23rd ranked Illini by 18 points. It was the first game in the Kiel Center (where the game is still played, but now it’s called Enterprise Center), and just one year after the epic 3OT game in 1993.

What about the team now?

Norfolk State v Baylor Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Underwood and his staff are facing a lot of turnover. Gone is Kofi Cockburn (Pro), Trent Frazier (graduation — finally), Alfonso Plummer (graduation), Damontie Williams (graduation), Jacob Grandison (transfer Duke), Andre Curbelo (transfer St. Johns), Omar Payne (transfer Jacksonville), Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (transfer South Carolina), and Brandin Podziemski (transfer Santa Clara). Together, that group of players provided 85.6% of the points Illinois scored last year.

Oh, so surely that means Illinois is going to suck this year, right?

Well, not so fast, my friends.

Underwood and Illinois have been recruiting well, and they hit the transfer portal hard. Coming in is Chicago native and former Illinois target, Terrence Shannon, Jr. Shannon was a member of the 2019 recruiting class and a top 100 recruit. Many thought he was Illinois-bound before landing in Lubbock at Texas Tech. After three good seasons where he averaged 11 points and shot 35% from 3-point range, Shannon entered the portal and came back home to Illinois.

He’s joined by former Baylor forward Matthew Mayer, who averaged 8.1 ppg on a National Championship team two years ago, and 9.8 ppg last year on a team who finished 4th in Also arriving via Baylor is Dain Dainja, another former top 100 recruit who redshirted during their Championship run, and saw limited minutes early in his freshman year before transferring.

Their incoming freshman class is quite good, with 3 top 100 recruits, and a 4-star ranked 109th. The crown jewel is the 33rd ranked Skyy Clark, a 6’3 point guard who is recovering from an ACL tear but was one of the best players for Mokan Elite a couple summers ago. There’s also Ty Rodgers, the 53rd ranked player and a fun combo forward from Michigan. Jayden Epps is a shifty combo guard ranked 72nd in the last class. And 109th ranked Sencire Harris is a good-looking combo guard out of Akron, Ohio.

Coming back is Coleman Hawkins, a 6’10 mobile forward who averaged 5.9 ppg last season. Luke Goode, a nice-looking wing prospect who played sparingly last year but got better towards the end of the season. And the athletic RJ Melendez, a combo forward from Puerto Rico. Good and Melendez were important parts of the 2021 recruiting class, and both should factor into some more major minutes this season.

Put all of this together and you might have the makings of a top 25 team. I’m not sure Illinois looks like a top 10 team or even another Big 10 champion, but they look really pretty tough. If Skyy Clark is back to full strength and they get enough shooting, they should be right back in the mix for an NCAA berth. Hopefully that just includes a loss in Braggin’ Rights.