Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
October 23, 2021
The St. Francis Fighting Saints come to town to face the Illinois Fighting Illini in the exhibition opener for both teams. The Fighting Saints are coming off of a 14-10 season last year that saw them lose in first-round action of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAC). Leading scorer, 6'3" junior Joey Buggemi returns with his 11.1 points per game. Also returning is honorable mention all conference guard Russell Tillery. The 6'1" guard averaged 8.9 points a game last year.
The Fighting Saints feature a smaller front line with only one player at 6'8" and one at 6'7". It could be a rough night for their front line and their team.
Let's get to the questions that I want answered tonight.
Andre stepped up at the end of the year when Ayo was out. Now, Ayo is a Bull and the Illini aren't his team anymore. Guards run basketball teams and it's Curbelo's team for the taking. All he has to do is grab it and make it his. Will he do it?
Some might say, Kofi is the King and they'd be correct. Even with that truth, the game of college basketball is controlled by guards. Curbelo has a chance to be the same type of leader as Ayo has been for the team the last few years. Curbelo needs to control the pace of the game, limit his turnovers, distribute the ball and hit the open shots he gets.
This could be the beginning of the Curbelo era. He's so good, he has the potential to make it a one-year run, but what an era it could be.
Coleman Hawkins and Omar Payne have a huge opportunity to help this Illini team provide more inside punch than they have in decades. Kofi was a 2nd team All American last year. No one has to worry about what he can do on a collegiate basketball court. It's more about him expanding his game on the court to demonstrate to the NBA that he's ready for the next level. But when it comes to effort, energy and impact on a game, Kofi is a force of nature. He's like a hurricane. He's going to strike hard and you just have to see how much damage he's going to do. But, what will we see from Coleman Hawkins and Omar Payne?
The Illini staff and those who've had the opportunity to watch practice have raved about the improvements they have seen in Coleman Hawkins. He's put in the effort in the offseason weight program - and it shows. His outside shot is smooth. He continues to demonstrate the athleticism the excites coaches and fans alike. We are waiting to see if he will he turn into a threat on offense this season. Will he look to score, instead of just passing the ball to the next person in the offense? If Coleman becomes a threat in the eyes of the defense, this Illini team is going to be almost unguardable.
Omar Payne is nearly the same picture. His practice performances have made fans wonder why Florida couldn't get more production out of him. He has a solid mid-range jumper. He is a better shot blocker than even Kofi is. He runs the pick and roll with a vengeance. He can get up and down the court with amazing speed. His work in the weight room has been impressive as well.
If the Illini have high production out of Coleman and Omar to go along with the phenomenon that is Kofi, this is a team that can beat any team during any given game.
Cohesion of a team is important. The Illini were one unit with one purpose last year. They did everything possible to win the B1G tourney after feeling Michigan was given a free pass and named the regular season conference champions unfairly.
Can this year's team reach that same level of unity of purpose? In many ways, they have more offensive weapons this year. How long will take them to get acclimated to playing together? Each year is a new year. With the transfer portal, college basketball is more like the NBA or NFL where teams recreate themselves on an annual basis. Can the Illini use these 2 exhibition games as a learning experience to get a leg up on their competition this year?
Coach Underwood has figured out over the years how to focus his teams to battle through a challenging B1G conference schedule. This year will require that same set of skills to be mastered. The only difference is that when the conference tourney is done, the team can't let down. They have to push through to have the same success in the NCAA tourney that they have shown in the B1G tourney.
The sooner this team learns to play together, the better off they will be. They have new players to incorporate into the team - Plummer, Payne, and Hutcherson are primed to be big contributors but it's not automatic. They have freshmen - Podziemski, Goode, and Melendez to incorporate into the team - even though minutes may be sparse for them. The opportunity for a big season is clearly a big one. How long it takes for this unit to play as one is going to determine how high this team can go at the end of the year.
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