Illinois Basketball: Previewing the first five games for the Illini

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Illinois Men's Basketball Head Coach Brad Underwood speaks at the 2017 Big Ten Basketball Media Day at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Illinois Men's Basketball Head Coach Brad Underwood speaks at the 2017 Big Ten Basketball Media Day at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

The Illinois basketball team starts regular season play this week and so begins the process of a young team finding its identity in first-year coach Brad Underwood’s system.

The Illini are 1-2 in pre-season scrimmage games, not that it really matters.  They lost to Indiana State by one point and again this past Friday to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston by 13.  The bright spot came last Sunday when the Illini traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to take on Vanderbilt, and returned home with a ten-point win over a middle of the pack SEC team.

Truly, these scrimmage games don’t matter all that much.   As Coach Underwood said at his press conference Friday night after the beat down by the Panthers, playing in front of a “packed house” is an excellent experience by itself and there is much to learn from this loss.  The thing he said he was most disappointed by was that the Illini “played pretty” and that is something that he said, “I am not about.”  He wants a tougher, more physical and aggressive team on the floor.  He also said there is no leader on the floor right now.  As a “teacher” he said he “gets excited” when he “finds guys at their lowest” which is where he thinks he is at right now.  Let’s hope that is true, and that the Illini learn quickly because regular season play commences this Friday, November 10 in Champaign.

This is the first of three posts (not necessarily consecutive) in which I will preview the Illini’s first 15 games.  I should note, though, this year is different than past years because the Big Ten Conference Tournament will be played earlier than usual (beginning March 4 at Madison Square Garden). That means two of the 18 conference games will be squeezed into the non-conference schedule.  Specifically, the Illini play Northwestern and Maryland in early December before resuming non-conference play to finish out the month.

In short, I see the Illini going 5-0 in the first five games, 3-2 (at best) in the next five – which includes the two conference games, and 3-2 in the final frame of 2017.  For the math challenged (in full disclosure, I include myself in that group) that puts the Illini at 11-4 heading into January, 1-1 in conference play, and 10-3 in the non-conference slate. Depending on how the Illini do in that second grouping, I might revise my prediction with respect the final five games.

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 25: Te’Jon Lucas
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 25: Te’Jon Lucas /

The Illini cannot take any teams for granted this year or they will most certainly find itself on the wrong side of the bubble in March.  That mentality begins Friday.

Game one this Friday is against the Southern University Jaguars.  The Jaguars hail from the Southwestern Athletic Conference.  They finished last year 15-18 overall and 10-8 in conference play, placing 3rd overall.  This year Southern is predicted to finish 5th in the SAC.  The main reason for this is the loss of about one-third of its scoring.  However, the Jaguars do return 6-foot-9, 210-pound senior Jared Sam.  Sam averaged 13.6 points per game and hauled in a whopping 7.4 rebounds per game last year.  But isolate Sam, and the Illini should have a win out of the gate.

On Sunday, November 12, the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks arrive in Champaign. The Skyhawks play in the Ohio Valley Conference.  They finished 22-13 last year and 10-6 in conference, finishing first in the West Division of the OVC. UT-Martin will be a tougher out for the Illini than Southern.  First of all, this team is slated to finish 6th overall this year, just behind EIU.  And like the Panthers, the Skyhawks boast a bevy of junior college transfers, seven in all.   UT-Martin lost quite a few players, including its top scorer, from last year’s conference final runner-up team.  But the transfers along with senior guard Matthew Butler, an all-conference second team player, might be capable of stringing together some victories and will be looking for an early season upset.

On Friday, November 17 the DePaul Blue Demons make the drive from Chicago to Champaign for a prime-time game on the Big Ten Network.  This is part of the third annual Big East v. Big Ten “Gavitt Tipoff Games” and stands to be an important game for both teams.  The Illini will be looking to keep its momentum with a third win and DePaul will be seeking to upset an in-state foe that it hasn’t played in sixty years.  Both teams are seeking to improve their home-state recruiting, and this game will be seen as a bragging rights opportunity on that front.

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 09: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 09: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman /

The Blue Demons have been a struggling program for a number of years and for a number of reasons.  However, they might be turning the corner in the near future.  Third-year head coach David Leito, who is a big part of the pending turn-around, now has a shiny new ten thousand seat arena to help lure recruits.  He also brings some talent to the table, despite the loss of Billy Garrett Jr., an explosive scorer.

DePaul’s top scorer from last year, wing Eli Cain (15.6 PPG), returns bringing his 6-foot-6, 204-pound frame with him.  Joining Cain will be transfers Max Strus and Austin Grandstaff.  Strus, at 6-foot-6, 217-pounds, averaged 20.2 PPG and hoovered 8.4 RPG while at Lewis University.  He chose to transfer to DePaul, snubbing offers from Butler and Xavier.  Grandstaff, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Ohio State, is another sharpshooting wing with a very high ceiling.  Also, four-star freshman Justin Roberts, a point guard from Findlay Prep in Nevada, should see significant playing time handling the ball when predicted starter, sophomore Devin Gage, needs a breather.

DePaul brings some power to its frontcourt as well.  Marin Maric, a graduate transfer from Northern Illinois (14.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG) is 6-foot-11, 250-pounds.  He is joined by Levi Cook, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound sophomore.  With three other guys between 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-10, DePaul has some size too.

This game will be a huge test for Illinois.  Home court advantage should be the difference in pushing the Illini over the top.  But, any team that sleeps on DePaul this year will find themselves with an “L.”

Just two days later, the Illini host the Marshall Thundering Herd of Conference USA.  Marshall is pre-season No. 6 in conference.  They went 20-15 overall and 10-8 in conference play last year.  Marshall is coached by the Dan D’Antoni.  If that name sounds familiar, that’s because his younger brother, Mike, coaches the Houston Rockets.

The interesting thing to me about the match-up with Marshall is that D’Antoni apparently likes to run a very fast offense also.  In fact, David Borges, a writer for Lindy’s, references that D’Antoni runs a “7 seconds or less” offense.  Sound familiar?  That is Underwood’s scheme.  However, the difference appears to be that D’Antoni doesn’t emphasize defense like Underwood does.

The Thundering Herd is led by all-conference first team guard, Jon Elmore.  Elmore averaged about 20 PPG last year.  He also averaged almost six assists per game as well. Under Elmore, the Thundering Herd was the 7th highest scoring team in the NCAA.  Lindy’s honors Elmore as the top playmaker and best NBA prospect overall in Conference USA, impressive stuff.  Lucky for Illinois, Marshall lost four excellent players last year, including three double-digit scorers.  But if the Illini aren’t vigilant, this could be a Winthrop type of game.

The final game in this grouping is against Division III Augustana.  This is a very big game for the Vikings, who return most of their players from last year’s Division III National Runner-Up team.  This shouldn’t be a contest, but if you’re going to play a D-III school it can’t get much better than in-state Augustana.

Next: 3 observations from Eastern Illinois exhibition

For all the talk about the Illini having a soft non-conference schedule, it is clear to me that this Illini team needs such a schedule to cut its teeth.  Moreover, I am not convinced this is such a soft schedule when it comes down to it.  I’ll look at the next five games in a future post that sees a real possibility of the Illini losing three games.  The first five should set the table for us to see what kind of team the Illini will be this year.