Illinois Basketball: Illini versus Duke, an NBA prospect showcase

Jan 30, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; The Illinois Fighting Illini Orange Krush student section distracts the Minnesota Golden Gophers during a free throw during the second half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 30, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; The Illinois Fighting Illini Orange Krush student section distracts the Minnesota Golden Gophers during a free throw during the second half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Big Ten-ACC Challenge has released it’s schedule, and the Illinois basketball team is in line for a top-ten battle versus the Duke Blue Devils.

Duke and Illinois have seven all-time contests, with Illini beating the Blue Devils in their only game in Cameron Indoor back in 1995.

There will be no shortage of national attention on this game, but there will surely be a wealth of NBA scouts with their eyes on this one. There are a total of 11 former top-50 nationally ranked players (4 Illini and 7 Blue Devils), according 247Sports.

Front Office Gurus projects at least five players in this game to hear their name called in the 2021 NBA Draft.

To begin with names to watch, Duke’s usual star studded freshman class consists of Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach, Henry Coleman, Jaemyn Brakefield, Mark Williams, and a name many Illini fans are familiar with and Chicago native, DJ Steward.

Johnson, Steward, Roach and Williams/Coleman are in line for major playing time. Wendell Moore tested the NBA waters and returns to Durham as one of the top wings in the nation. Matthew Hurt is looking to capitalize off of more playing time in his sophomore campaign as a lanky, high feel, deadeye shooter at 6-foot-9.

The Illini roll out a collection of highly touted prospects themselves in Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and Adam Miller.

While slightly less sought after at the prep level, Andre Curbelo, Coleman Hawkins and Trent Frazier look to make stock building statements in a matchup to the magnitude of the 2020 ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

The Illini are not familiar with matching up against blue bloods in the last few seasons, but the ascension of the program and the recruiting evolution puts Brad Underwood and the Illini on the big stage nationally.

The matchup between the two is a story of it’s own, but I will break down how NBA evaluators will be dialing in on this game specifically for the 2021 and 2022 NBA Draft resume building.

The massive opportunity for Kofi Cockburn to make a statement.

Outside of Patrick Tape, the 6-foot-9 graduate transfer from Columbia, Coach K is likely to roll out Mark Williams to matchup against Kofi Cockburn. Williams, the 7-foot, 243-pound big man was ranked as the No. 30 best player in the nation in the class of 2020.

Physically, Cockburn will have an advantage, as he should against the majority of big men in the NCAA. Cockburn struggled at times against length in his freshman season, namely against Kaleb Wesson, Luka Garza and Jon Teske, so taking on Williams presents a challenge.

Williams’ defensive prowess will be put to a test by a bruiser like Cockburn, making this a massive opportunity for Cockburn to display the growth of his offensive skillset. The Illini were able to run the offense through Cockburn when playing against smaller lineups, thus building intrigue of whether Underwood attacks the inexperienced big or relies more so on the guards to initiate.

Ayo Dosunmu taking on Jeremy Roach.

Coach K puts a major emphasis on his backcourt being able to guard. Jordan Goldwire will see a lot of time on Ayo Dosunmu, but the Blue Devils will likely have to keep Roach on the floor because of his talent offensively. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound guard was the No. 18 overall recruit in the class of 2020 and comes to Durham with some big shoes to fill.

Dosunmu has the strides and length to drive and find his shot at the rim or in the mid-range on both Goldwire and Roach, which bodes well for the Illini. Defensively, Ayo will be put to the test by Roach’s speed.

A tight handle, lightening quick first step and the ability to score at all three levels will make it tough for the Illini. Dosunmu will be better off matched up against Goldwire or even Wendell Moore. Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo could likely be the ones responsible for containing the freshman stud, Roach.

Wendell Moore and Jalen Johnson matching up against Da’Monte Williams and the Illini wings.

Moore and Johnson will provide quite a challenge for the Illini defensively. Da’Monte Williams will have his hands full matched up against the bigger wings, but that is something he has proved to be capable of time after time in his Illini tenure.

Johnson, the Milwaukee native, is physically ready for the NBA at 6-foot-9 and 220-pounds. A versatile scorer with an impressive pull up game, explosive athleticism around the rim and the rare ability to handle the ball at his size.

Wendell Moore returns to school as one of the smoothest scorers and shooters from the wing. He had his inconsistencies as a freshman, but another year of experience under his belt makes him my likely bet to be Duke’s best player on the court.

If Ayo does slide over to guard Moore, some collection of Da’Monte Williams, Austin Hutcherson, Jacob Grandison, Coleman Hawkins or Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk will be responsible for slowing down Jalen Johnson. If healthy, I like this opportunity for Bosmans-Verdonk to make his presence felt defensively against one of the top 2021 NBA prospects in Johnson.

Adam Miller and DJ Steward battle once again.

Personally, I am the most excited to see this matchup play out. Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois in 2020 was rewarded to Adam Miller, yet DJ Steward was ranked higher nationally among all platforms.

Miller enters his freshman campaign at 6-foot-3, 180-pounds while Steward comes in at 6-foot-2 and a narrow, 163-pounds. Steward is extremely wiry and quick carrying natural toughness to his game. Assessing how much he can produce at such a slight weight will be intriguing, especially when matching up against Miller and his defensive instincts.

I like Steward as an NBA prospect in 2022, as matchups exactly like this one against bigger guards could bring about a shortage of production. In a different manner, it will be intriguing to watch how Brad Underwood plays Miller in a matchup like this on such a big stage, where a more experienced Trent Frazier might get the overall nod in terms of minutes. This is not quite Whitney Young versus Morgan Park anymore, but never the less, Steward and Ace Wolf are bound to battle per usual.

Overall, the Illini have the pieces to go 10 or 11 guys deep on a nightly basis. For this matchup in specific, I like the Illini matchup rolling out Ayo, Frazier, Miller, Williams or Bosmans-Verdonk and Kofi Cockburn. Brad Underwood’s Fighting Illini have never been on a bigger stage than they will be on Tuesday, December 8, in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Next. Andre Curbelo tabbed as “under-the-radar freshman”. dark

Hutcherson and Bosmans-Verdonk told me just two months ago that the 2020-2021 Illini are “coming for everything”. Duke will put them to the test, but taking down an NBA factory like Coach K’s will undoubtedly rake in national and NBA scouting recognition.