Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
November 12, 2021
The Illini face off against the Arkansas State Red Wolves on Friday night at 8 pm in the State Farm Center. There is no TV for this; the game can be seen on BTN+.
The Red Wolves are 1-0 after winning their opener 81-55 against Harding on Tuesday night. Arkansas transfer and super senior Desi Sills scored 21 points and double-double machine Norchad Omier picked up where he left off last season. The Sun Belt all-conference forward and league Freshman of the Year had 15 points and 12 rebounds. Illinois must keep Sills in front of them and keep Omier off the boards, otherwise it could be a long night.
On the other hand, Arkansas State will discover that the Fighting Illini aren't the Harding Bison. Even with Illinois being without All-American center Kofi Cockburn, who will sit out the second of his three-game NCAA suspension, and the game time decisions on the availability of their top three ballhandlers, the Red Wolves are in for a massive upswing in competition.
When asked in the late Thursday afternoon media session, head coach Brad Underwood said he didn't know the status of the three guards. Whether that was truthful or if he was just being coy, time will tell. Curbelo (concussion) and Frazier (shoulder) will do most of the ball handling when healthy and Hutcherson (tailbone) had been practicing to fill in at the point in certain situations. UPDATE: as of this afternoon, both Curbelo and Frazier are expected to play, barring a late setback.
Without the three of them, Illinois had a point-guard-by-committee approach in the opener against Jackson State. Led by Da'Monte Williams, the group included Jacob Grandison, Brandin Podziemski, and even 6-foot-10 forward Coleman Hawkins. They got the job done - and Underwood even praised the leadership of Williams, but they also committed 19 turnovers in the game.
The effects of Hutcherson's bone bruise are still lingering and its easy to understand the hesitancy to put him into a game situation before he's fully comfortable given his injury history. The combination of Frazier and Curbelo is arguably the best backcourt in the conference and potentially all of college basketball. The Illini would love to get them healthy and take advantage of these early, non-conference contests.
You could make the argument that nobody on the Illini roster made more of his summer than the sophomore Hawkins. His growth and playing time limited due to COVID his freshman season, the California native put on 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason and the results are immediately obvious. Career highs with 13 points and eight rebounds and even added four steals against Jackson State. And if that weren't enough, he even helped out for a few stretches at the point guard position as mentioned above. The most noticeable areas of improvement are as a ball handler and in his confidence as a scorer. His ability to space the floor and his new willingness to be a threat offensively will open things up for Curbelo and Kofi who need as much space as possible to operate on the offensive end of the court.
Defensively, he brings a body that Illinois missed at the power forward position last year. His shot blocking at the rim and on three point close outs is exceptional for a four with a lean build. When teams try to pull Kofi away from the basket on pick and rolls, Hawkins can play the role of a "free safety" on the weak side to deter opposing ball handlers at the basket. This adds an element that has long been missing from the Illini defensive arsenal.
As much as a healthy Hutcherson can improve the Illini defense on the wing, Hawkins can make even more of a difference for the Illini defense on both the wing and in the paint. In fact, Hawkins' defensive abilities may actually elevate the defensive ceiling of this Illini basketball team to a level that we haven't seen, if ever. Hawkins needs to consistently play at a high level, stay out of foul trouble, and not let his temper derail his efforts.
With the three freshmen, there most likely won't be enough playing time for all of them once everyone returns from injuries and suspension. Until then, there will be opportunities for the freshmen to prove themselves on the court. Will one of them mesh while running with the second unit to be productive? One of them may be able to earn a "permanent" spot on the second unit during this early stretch of games.
Luke Goode has shown an outside shooting touch and understands his role when on the floor. R.J. Melendez has shown a kind of "garbage man" approach on the offensive end, hitting the glass and taking advantage of easy buckets around the rim. Podziemski has shown a microwave-like offensive presence and a willingness to hustle and get on the floor for loose balls. Each is going to need to bring it every night to prove they can earn minutes on a top ten team.
Arkansas State is much more talented and skilled than the Jackson State team that Illinois beat in the opener. Sills and Omier could probably start on most college teams in the country They are a big and talented team that is well coached. Not having your best ballhandlers available will be problematic, but this is perhaps the deepest team in Illinois program history. I think the Illini show off their impressive depth and talent and they score another decisive victory before leaving for their lone road game in the non-conference slate when they take on Marquette on Monday.
Illinois 78, Arkansas State 51
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