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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Mizzou preview 2021

Last year, Illini fans expected a cakewalk in the non-Braggin’ Rights game at Mizzou. But karma chose otherwise.

From the tedious Coin Flip Show which determined that Columbia, not Champaign would host the contest; to the listless performance by an eventual #1 seed: Everything sucked for Illini fans.

Mizzou guard Mark Smith (13). Mizzou Tigers vs. Illinois Illini at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, December 12, 2020. Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

Ironically, because Mizzou is crap this year, the pressure is again on the Illini this year. Favored by fifteen points, Illinois simply can’t lose to a Tigers team that’s already lost to UMKC, Liberty and Wichita State.

Mark Smith is gone. Mitchell Smith is gone. Dru Smith is gone. Jeremiah Tilmon is gone.

Brad Underwood identified point-forward Kobe Brown and Illini nemesis Javon Pickett as the Tigers to watch for.

Brown is hitting 56% from the floor, and leading Mizzou with 15 points per game. He’s listed at 6’8″ and 250 lbs., thus making him one of the few Tigers that could offer any resistance to Kofi Cockburn. Underwood expects Mizzou to throw multiple defenders at Kofi.

Illinois forward Kofi Cockburn (21). Mizzou Tigers vs. Illinois Illini at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, December 12, 2020. Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

So maybe you can expect a defense-by-irritant approach against Kofi. It worked well for Marquette and Arizona. But it also gives Kofi the opportunity to improve his passing game, which is the most amazing aspect of this young Illini season in my arrogant opinion.

Mizzou lacks size, and the guys with size lack experience. De Smet Jesuit grad Yaya Keita, a 6’9″ 240 lb. freshman, will spell the veterans, but you cab expect Cuonzo Martin to throw him at BBV and Omar Payne, while Kofi’s getting a breather.

Coach Tim Anderson counsels Kofi Cockburn.

Apart from Brown, the Tigers can’t shoot. They’re abysmal from the arc, connecting on 25% to 27% among those that have launced more than five attempts on the season. Brown leads the way at 27.3%. Pickett is 21% for the year.

Naturally, they’ll have career nights against the Illini, right?

Other Tigers to watch for are DaJuan Gordon, whose initial defensive instruction came from Chris Lowery and Bruce Weber. Those dudes can teach defense (if nothing else). K-State traded Gordon for Mark Smith during the off-season, and despite how also-ran Smith has been for the Wildcatters, it’s hard to argue that Gordon is better. The 15/17 assist-to-turnover ratio is telling. He has 13 steals on the year, second on the team only to Brown (19). He’s 35% from the floor, and 26% from the arc.

Cuonzo Martin was exasperated by Illini freshman Trent Frazier (Vashoune Russell)

Nine Tigers play, and six Tigers play 30 minutes. It’s exactly the rotation paradigm you’d expect from the Keady Tree. Sophomore swingman Ronnie DeGray seems like the kind of match-up nightmare that Underwood likes to moan about. The 6’6″ sophomore is averagind 9 points and 6 rebounds per game. He’s played in all 11 for the 6-5 Tigers, starting three. You see his role expanding as the season develops, and you fear him having his break-out game against Illinois.

But that’s because you’re an Illini fan. Fear is home to you. It’s practically your safe space.

Also, if Illinois doesn’t win tonight, shut it all down.

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Illini basketball Illini football

In hindsight, it was a pretty good day

Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.

A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.

No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).

You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.

Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.

Illini center Joe Spencer nearly gained a rushing first down after picking up a fumble (Vashoune Russell)

But let’s stick to happy thoughts.

It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.

Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.

At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?

Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.

So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.

Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).

Illini head coach Lovie Smith admonishes Ke’Shawn Vaughn after the latter’s personal foul Saturday night in Champaign (Vashoune Russell)

T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)

Luke Butkus and Hardy Nickerson Sr. are bemused (Vashoune Russell)

Bad form tackling by Lovie Smith versus Carolina RB Elijah Hood (Vashoune Russell)

Dawuane Smoot is not bemused (Vashoune Russell)