Illini Basketball Preview - Illini vs Kansas State - Return of the Weber

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

November 23, 2021

Mark Smith courtesy arcpublishing.com

The Illini will be playing against Kansas State led by former Illini head coach Bruce Weber. Weber coached Illinois from 2003 - 2012. He let the Illini to 210 wins and 101 losses and finished 2nd in the nation in 2005. Weber has been at Kansas State since 2012 and he has won 172 games and lost 130 games. The Wildcats have played in the NCAA tournament 5 times during his tenure. It's safe to say Illini fans aren't interested in losing to a Bruce Weber coached team.

The two schools have played 10 times with the Illini leading the series 8-2. On neutral courts, the Wildcats have a 1-0 record versus the Illini going into tonight's game at Kansas City.

The Wildcats come into the game with a 2-1 record having lost to #13 Arkansas 72-64 last night. They are led in scoring by 6'0" sophomore Nijel Pack who averages 16.5 points per game. Former 6'4" Illini guard Mark Smith is second in scoring at 11.5 points per game and leads the Wildcats with 7.0 rebounds per game.

The Wildcats have a trio of bigs who will do their best to make life tough for Kofi on the inside. Ismael Massoud, a 6'9", 220-pound forward averages 10.0 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game; Kaosi Ezeagu, a 6'10", 255-pound forward, averages 7.5 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game; Davion Bradford, a 7', 265-pound forward averages 5.5 points per game and 4.0 rebounds per game. They will have fouls to burn to slow down the Illini All American.

2 Questions

Can Illinois get a solid third option?

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Illinois Athletics

With Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo, Illinois has two players that can put points on the board. It was clear in Monday’s loss that those two alone will not be enough. Two games prior, Illinois got 23 points from Trent Frazier on relatively good efficiency. While that may be a tough number to get consistently, getting zero points on 0/9 from the field is not going to cut it for the fifth-year senior. Getting him more involved early on could bolster his energy on both ends of the court – whether through off-ball screens or having him bring the ball up the court on certain sets. Either way, he needs to be more involved on the offense.

Coleman Hawkins is another player who can potentially fill the void. He’s young and can still get pushed around which makes it tough for him to create shots from the perimeter. That said, he could make an impact on the offensive glass – or, at the very least, he could make more impact than he’s shown so far. Hawkins could be used as a screener so that when he catches the ball on the roll, he can act as a secondary playmaker. At 6’10”, he has the ability to pass over his defender, but his lack of lateral quickness makes that hard if the defense hasn’t been broken down beforehand.

Can Illinois find an offensive identity?

While Illinois has lost the past two games, it wasn’t the fault of their defense. It was clear that against Cincinnati, the defensive intensity dropped off as Illini shots continued to miss on the other end of the court. Offensively, they looked dreadful. After starting the last game strong, they had one of the worst offensive performances for the program in the modern era. With Kofi returning, it’s fair to say most expected a better performance as a whole.

Getting better on the offensive end will start with better ball movement. On some possessions it has felt like four guys watching Curbelo dribbling around the court with absolutely no other movement. Other possessions have ended with what felt like players selfishly needing to get off “their” shot rather than doing what was best for the team. That, in turn, has led to a growing pressure and urgency each possession moving forward.

The players need to trust each other and move the ball. That starts with making crisp passes into the shooting pocket and not behind the back fancy passes just for the sake of it. So many of the turnovers we’ve seen so far have been unforced and created easy opportunities for the opposing teams’ defenses. When these situations happen, the coaching staff – or one of the veteran leaders on this team – should step in to make sure the turnovers don’t compound. While this isn’t the exact same team from last year, there are many returning player and given their experience more should be expected of them.

Prediction

Illinois 70 – Kansas State 65

So far this season, we’ve seen early signs that Illinois isn’t playing up to their potential. To have the season that’s been anticipated, they need to show up to each and every game. If Illinois is capable of building cohesion on the court and cleaning up unforced errors, they should prevail over the Kansas State Wildcats. As we've seen, nothing is guaranteed.

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