Asmussen | It's showtime for new group of Illini players

Asmussen | It's showtime for new group of Illini players

Christmas in November. That's what I like to call this time of year.

The sports I love most — college football and college basketball — are being played the same week.

Two days before Lovie Smith takes his football team to Nebraska, Illinois men's basketball opens the regular season tonight against Evansville. It's the first game for Ayo Dosunmu and pals that will actually count in the record books.

If the prep superstar wants to match Illini icon Dee Brown, here are the numbers: 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and one turnover.

Oh, and a 34-point win.

That's what Brown did on Nov. 24, 2002, in his college debut against Lehigh. There were 11,758 in a building then known as the Assembly Hall.

It's a lot fancier now and has a new name. The folks who come to State Farm Center for tonight's 7 p.m. tipoff will want to see a show. They'll want lobs and dunks and threes. Lots of threes.

At the other end of the court, they will demand hustle and in-your-face defense.

Nobody knows what to expect from Brad Underwood's team in his second season. Improvement? Probably. A spot in the postseason? Well, the Big Ten tournament includes everyone.

An invite beyond the mandatory seems like a stretch at this point. But stranger things have happened.

The young guys who fill most of Underwood's roster don't know what they don't know. Lack of experience usually leads to failure. But not always.

This group seems especially confident. They want to take Illinois back to Brown/Deron Williams era expectations.

While covering 30 years of Illinois sports, I have learned to never say never. I didn't know T.J. Wheeler would throw a perfect pass to Andy Kaufmann, who let loose for the buzzer beater against Iowa in 1993.

When the best Illinois team I have seen in person (sorry, I got here after the Flyin' Illini) trailed Arizona by 15 with four minutes left, I had no idea about the comeback I was going to watch in 2005. When I see the replays now, I keep waiting for Arizona to make another basket or Illinois to miss a shot. It never happens.

In football, I didn't expect Ron Turner's third team to wake up after trailing ranked Michigan by 20 points in 1999. I can still picture then-Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Kish demanding a "gosh darn A" for the coaching grade. I agreed.

I would have never guessed Juice Williams would convert time after time on the closing drive at Ohio State in 2007, clinching his team's upset against the No. 1 Buckeyes.

 

Holiday spirit

For the next three weeks, we get to bounce between football and basketball.

Football is winding down. With a spring in its step.

What looked like a lost season gained a temporary reprieve Saturday against Minnesota.

Smiles and laughter are in full force at the football complex this week. The small group of seniors don't want to go out like previous classes, which limped home in November. Illinois has lost at least its final three games for three consecutive seasons.

Basketball is just getting started. After tonight's game, the Illini host Georgetown next Tuesday.

That's right, Patrick Ewing's alma mater, one of the legendary programs in the game, is visiting Champaign-Urbana. In an awesome twist, Ewing is coaching the Hoyas.

Most of you probably think of him for his time with the New York Knicks. My memories go back to his freshman year in the NCAA title game, when he swatted away shot after shot by North Carolina just to prove he could.

Wish he was playing Tuesday. Oh, well.

After Georgetown, aggressive scheduler Underwood sends his team on a string of nasty assignments. Gonzaga, Iowa State or Arizona and maybe even powerhouse Duke await in Maui.

Yeah, yeah, the Hawaii part makes it hard to feel sorry for them.

Come home with one win and it will be a successful trip. Any more than that will be the gravy we all love to pour on our Thanksgiving meals.

 

Not all bad

There is a strong chance for an early Illinois win. After the team gets back from Maui, it hosts Mississippi Valley State.

The Delta Devils have already played a game against the Big Ten and it did not go well. Nebraska beat Jerry Rice's alma mater by 69 on Tuesday.

Honestly, the rest of the pre-Christmas schedule will be a huge challenge for Illinois.

Trips to Notre Dame and Nebraska. A "home" game against Ohio State at the United Center in Chicago. A visit from UNLV. And the annual grudge match against Missouri in St. Louis.

Any players you recognize with the Tigers?

Sit back and enjoy. Keep the remote handy and remember, it's supposed to be fun.

 

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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