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Q&A with the Champaign Room: Quiet confidence from the Illinois side

The annual matchup is causing rising temperatures in both fanbases.

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

I exchanged some questions with our friends at the Champaign Room about tonight’s Bragging Rights game. It was an interesting discussion. Head over to if you want to see what I had to say to their questions.

1. Brad Underwood’s start has been a lot rockier than most of us imagined. Where is the general feeling of the fanbase on how he’s doing and what are going to be the expectations the rest of the season and into year three?

Brandon Birkhead: There are some concerns about his ability to build a full and complete roster, and some large concerns about the viability of his defensive systems. Getting players like Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier was excellent, but he hasn’t been able to fill out the frontcourt. He also had Mark Smith and Greg Eboigbodin leave after only one season, and it’s hard to put those transfers on anything other than poor relationships with the coaching staff.

Brad Underwood only spent one season in high-major hoops before taking the job at Oklahoma State, where he inherited a pro-level guard in Juwan Evans and didn’t have to rebuild that team. He has to do that with Illinois and with the players who have chosen to leave the the recruiting misses so far in the 2019 class there is reasons to have some doubt.

As far as this year, it’s quite clear to Illinois fans that it’s going to be a struggle. We thought we could be closer to .500 than we look like we’ll end up at, but no one expected an NCAA Tournament run. Right now the goal is simply to be a lot better in February and March than we have been so far. Year three in 2019-20 is when we will have to finally start seeing some results both in recruiting and on the court.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

2. There was an article which came out talking about Underwood’s lack of appearances at Chicago HS games this season. What is your reaction to this and what is the general feeling of the fan base on it?

Birkhead: It’s never good to have something written like that, but honestly I don’t think there is much there to it.

There was a 17 day stretch that also combined with the start of high school ball where Illinois played 7 games, with three in maui and two on the road. The next week Illinois had two games to play. At what point was Brad Underwood supposed to go to Chicago exactly? The team has to practice and with the poor start focus had to be with his young team. He will be visiting Chicago soon and often, and I’m honestly not too worried. Not anymore than I have been about any Illinois coach attempting to recruit Chicago.

Let’s look at the two tournaments specifically mentioned in the piece. Chicago Elite Classic on Dec. 1st. The team was in Lincoln getting ready to play the Huskers the next day. Team Rose shootout, Dec. 8th and 9th. Illinois played UNLV on the 8th. There weren’t any players that Illinois was looking into heavily playing on the 9th. Please tell me how Brad Underwood was supposed to be in two places at once?

The perception however is still there. It’s not a good thing to have happened, and Underwood may have to smooth out some relationships there (especially with Robert Smith and Simeon but that has WAAAAAAYYY more to do with the Talen Horton-Tucker-Ayo Dosunmu situation than this), but quite frankly, there isn’t much here except the usual gripings about Illinois that Chicago High School Basketball has always had. Underwood’s absence is clearly felt and that is a problem, but it’s not really one to be worried about. Underwood will be in Chicago quite often soon enough.

3. Illinois strengths and weaknesses seem to be pretty obvious with solid guard play and some questionable interior play. What needs to happen for Illinois to turn a corner this season and be a threat in the Big 10?

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Illinois Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Birkhead: Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu need to learn how to play together on the court effectively. They are both players who are much better with the ball in their hands, and because of that their best games have come this season when the other was out (like Frazier vs Georgetown or Dosunmu vs E. Tenn St.) or not playing as much down the stretch as the other.

I thought Frazier would be a great off ball cutter and spot-up shooter and may be able to score with more ease having to handle the ball less, but that hasn’t happened, and it’ll need to for Illinois to improve. We need to score lots of points from the guards and start playing games in the 80s rather than in the high 60s or 70s.

4. There’s been plenty of trash talk between the two sides over the last few years, how important is this game to Illinois fans and how do you think they’ll react to a win or a loss?

Birkhead: This game is always important to Illinois fans. As I mentioned in my Braggin’ Rights Column ”It’s also the one true rivalry game that Illinois has in the two major sports. The one game where the other team cares just as much as we do about winning the game.” If Illinois fans could only pick one game to win each year it would be this, especially fans like me who live in metro-east St. Louis which has the second-largest group of Illinois fans with Chicago-land being number one.

Outside of the rivalry, this is a huge game, because Illinois needs something good to happen soon. Illinois has had very close losses to Gonzaga in Maui and against Notre Dame on the road when Frazier’s last second three to win went down 50% of the way before bouncing out off the back-rim. Illinois still does not have a good win yet on their belts and the young team could really use one and so could the fans. Let’s have something positive happen for a change, huh?

Also with the Mark Smith angle and with Cuonzo Martin’s ties to the metro-east, I think this could be huge for the next few years in terms of recruiting.

5. How do you think this game plays out and who ends up on top? Score Prediction?

Birkhead: Like almost all Braggin’ Right games it’ll be a very tight and fiesty match-up. It’s interesting how the tides have turned though in which a fast-paced game will actually favor the Illini unlike in the Mark Anderson led years for Mizzou. It will come down to this, can Illinois get another great performance out of one of their two leading guards, Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier? If one of those two don’t put up 20+ I’d find it hard to envision Illinois winning. However, if one or both of them can provide scoring and the rest of the Illini players can hit some threes, Illinois could comfortably win this.

But, Mizzou has the size advantage to say the least, and could make the Illini suffer on defense. Illinois is a poor rebounding team and Mizzou should be able to take advantage of this and grab a few extra possessions and easy baskets. The Illini pressure defense will need to have a more controlled game because of this. With a player like Tilmon Illinois will need to focus on keeping the ball from entering the paint at will and the more pressure they put on the more likely that will happen, even if it leads to a few more turnovers from Mizzou.

It’s probably a boring answer, but I think this game will be about who shoots the three better and it’ll be a race to seventy with either team having a shot to get there. It will come down to the last few minutes. Illinois lost a game like to to Notre Dame on the road. I hope we are due for it to go our way this time, even though being due for something in sports doesn’t exist, but perhaps karma does?

Illinois wins its 6th straight Braggin’ Rights with a 71-67 victory. Trent Frazier to lead the way with 22 points for Illinois despite a great 16 point 12 rebound performance from Tilmon.

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

Thanks to Brandon Birkhead, of, if you enjoy smart fan follows of your rival you can find Brandon on Twitter at @bbirk3.