No. 23 Illinois gets a chance to reveal a new identity in its season opener with Eastern Illinois.
Gone is All-America center Kofi Cockburn and the rest of the established leadership core of the Fighting Illini: guards Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Da’Monte Williams. Versatile guard Andre Curbelo transferred to St. John’s and forward Jacob Grandison will spend his sixth year of eligibility at Duke.
Plummer, a sharpshooter who transferred to Illinois, Cockburn and Plummer accounted for 47.1 points per game last season, when Illinois went 23-10, won the Big Ten regular season title but lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
So why exactly is head coach Brad Underwood toasting his 2022-23 team in Champaign with a wry smile?
“I love our personnel. I think we’re as talented as we have been. It just looks different. And we’ve got a position with size,” Underwood said. “And we’ve got guys who can break it down off the dribble, we have a very good shooting team. So we’ll have to figure all that out. But you know, instead of just throwing the ball down to Kofi, we’ll have some different options.”
Illinois added two transfers with size who’ll be in the primary rotation in former Texas Tech guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (6-feet-6) and former Baylor forward Matthew Mayer (6-9), the mullet-wearing “stretch 4” who can shoot from deep.
They are now essential to floating an Illinois team that slowed down, atypical for Underwood, and won with defense and discipline. But newcomers Skyy Clark, a transfer from Kentucky who didn’t play last year due to a torn ACL, and freshman Ty Rodgers could be the difference-makers in conference play.
One player Illinois won’t have to start the season is sophomore forward Luke Goode. He fractured a bone in his left foot in a closed scrimmage against Kansas in October and is unlikely to play before Christmas.
Eastern Illinois went 5-26 last season, including the opener against Big Ten foe Northwestern (80-56) and a 28-point loss at Missouri. The Panthers ranked 357th in points out of 358 Division I men’s teams at 56.3 points per game.
Sophomore forward Paul Bizimana emerged as a go-to scorer in conference play as a freshman. Guard Kejuan Clements averaged 8.3 points, 4.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 27 games and paces a balanced scoring outfit.
EIU has just five players returning from last year’s team and was picked to finish ninth in the 10-member Ohio Valley Conference. The transfer-heavy Cougars added point guard Yaakema Rose, Kinyon Hodges, Cameron Haffner, Kyle Carlesimo and Kaleb Donaldson — all guards — along with post players Sincere Malone, Brandon (Nick) Ellington and Kyle Thomas.
Rose could be in the spotlight immediately with a matchup against Clark.
“Yaakema Rose Jr., brings highly valued toughness, experience and playmaking ability to our team. He has a knack for making big plays and making those around him better,” Eastern coach Marty Simmons said.
–Field Level Media