Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
November 9, 2021
What: Illinois vs. Jackson State
Where: State Farm Center
When: 7:00pm tonight
Media: Big Ten Network, Busey Bank Radio Network
It's time for Illini basketball! This is a new season and we're looking at some familiar returning faces and some new names that we have yet to see in regular season play. While the Illini's returning All American center Kofi Cockburn will be missing for the first three games due to an NCAA suspension, tonight's season opener vs. Jackson State will provide the opportunity for some unproven players to step up and use this as a confidence boost for later in the season.
The Tigers return Jayveous McKinnis a 6'7", 230 pound pre-season All SWAC player who averaged 12.5 ppg and 13.2 rpg. He is a relentless force on the boards and, despite a disadvantage in height, will test the resolve of Coleman Hawkins and Omar Payne. Jackson State isn't a strong offensive team, but they will push the Illini on the boards if given the opportunity.
It is uncertain how much the early game blow to the head affected Andre Curbelo's play in the second exhibition against Indiana of Pennsylvania eleven days ago, but he did have ten turnovers. The crafty point guard was prone to turnovers early in his freshman season, but cleaned much of that up in the stretch run when he became a very important player off the bench. Assuming he plays better and limits his mistakes, there will still be minutes the Bob Cousy Award candidate won't be on the court for the Illini. With Trent Frazier limited to four minutes against IUP due to what a shoulder injury, the question arises as to who will be the PG in those minutes that Curbelo is on the bench? Da'Monte Williams, Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer, and freshman Brandin Podziemski have all spent time at the point in practice. How effective they will be in that role remains to be seen.
Every year, we see mid-major schools who have experienced guards who can cause issues early in the season if teams are unprepared. While Illinois expects to be ready, they may not have the "security blanket" they have been used to in having multiple guards capable of playing the point (Ayo and Frazier or Frazier and Curbelo). If Curbelo and Frazier aren't on the floor, this might provide an opportunity for Jackson State. This is a chance for some Illini guards to establish themselves as reliable backup options.
With Cockburn's laughable NCAA suspension, Illinois will be missing the most dominant interior force in college basketball. This provides a challenge for the players behind him - Hawkins and Payne - to establish themselves as important pieces in the middle. Obviously, their roles will be different when Kofi returns to the court. Still, these three games will allow both the chance to build rapport with the guards and get minutes in the paint when the game is still being contested. The kicker is that they must play well or the team could absorb a loss.
Hawkins will provide more spacing than any option at the five since Underwood arrived at Illinois. If he can prove himself to be competent against opposing bigs, this could give Illinois the most versatile offensive lineup on the selected occasions which the Illini decide to "downsize" their lineup.
Payne has shown elite defensive potential in his two seasons at Florida, but hasn't really put it all together yet in the preseason. He is a player who must show the coaching staff that he's worth the minutes when he's on the floor. He's shown it in practice, but games have been a struggle for him, even back to his Florida days. The sooner that changes, the better for the Illini and Omar's playing time.
Austin Hutcherson has had one of the most illustrious practice careers of all time, as he is famous for being able to push Ayo to his limits. But aside from last month's first exhibition game against St. Francis of Joliet, Hutcherson has been idle the past two seasons due to sitting out (as per the old transfer rule) and injuries. If he can play at the level he has demonstrated in practice, he can be a dynamic addition to Illinois' wing play and bring intangibles that veterans Jacob Grandison and Da'Monte Williams do not.
How Underwood will use him in the rotation remains to be seen. He may come off the bench, along with Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer, to bring instant offense when Illinois is struggling on that end of the court. It also wouldn't be surprising if he plays well and pushes for a starting position for the Big Ten conference season. Either way, he has to be healthy to maximize his contribution to the roster.
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