Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
November 26, 2021
During this fifth game of their season, Illinois will take on the UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood faces UT Rio Grande Valley’s Matt Figger. Underwood and Figger are friends and former colleagues, having both served as assistant coaches to Frank Martin at Kansas State from 2008-2012. This is just the second time they face each other as head coaches. During their past matchup – with Underwood and Figger each in their first season as head coach at Illinois and Austin Peay, respectively – Underwood prevailed.
This is the Illini's first home game in two weeks. The Illini will play its next three games at home and five of its next six in the State Farm Center. The Fighting Illini currently carry a seven game home winning streak into Friday night's game. Monday night the Illini take on Notre Dame at home as well.
Frazier left the last game with a lower body injury. How severe that ends up being is yet to be determined, but it is unlikely he will play in this game. Illinois does not have any players that can replace him holistically, so they will have to do their best to replace him by committee. The two players that Illinois will lean heavily on are Austin Hutcherson and Alfonso Plummer.
Hutcherson will take over most of Frazier’s ball handling duties. Hutcherson played his first D1 minutes in the Hall of Fame Classic. Though he hadn’t yet played due to injury, he was able to bring a steady presence to the court in those two games. At 6’6” he is able to use his body to shield off smaller defender and makes passes over the defense. He would benefit from becoming more decisive in the paint, and this should be a game to help him grow his confidence going forward.
Plummer will replace some of the instant offense that Frazier brings to the court when Alfonso heats up. While Plummer hasn’t had the best start to the season, his outside shooting against Kansas State arguably saved the game for the Illini. In that game, he went seven for nine from the three, including some high difficulty shots. His shooting prowess from deep will keep defenders honest. His stock will rise if he can find a way to make more of an impact on the glass and as a defender, but the Illini are in desperate need of someone to provide that gravity as a shooter. Seven for nine may be a hard game to top, but if he can consistently shoot in the high 30s, it will ease the loss of Frazier - at least temporarily.
It’s no secret that Illinois has one of the best post players in Kofi Cockburn, but getting solid contributions from the power forward position as well as the back-up center minutes will be critical for this team to reach its full potential. It’s safe to say this won’t be the Illini’s toughest match-up in the front court this season, but this is one of the few games against a non-Power Six opponent so they can use this opportunity to get reps for the non-Kofi front court players.
Coleman Hawkins and Omar Payne can use this type of games to see what they can contribute to the roster. Hawkins has shown flashes of what he can do, but needs to avoid unforced turnovers. He could also up his contribution by being more active on the boards. The same goes for Payne. In addition, Payne needs to be able to defend without fouling. Illinois doesn’t need him to be the focal point of the offense, as long as he can be consistent on the defensive end.
Illinois 78 UT Rio Grande Valley 57
This should be a tune-up game for Illinois. With injuries on the roster, it is much needed. The Illini have the opportunity to figure out how to use players in new roles, while not risking a bad loss - as long as they keep up their defensive intensity.
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