Follow along all night from State Farm Center with beat writer Scott Richey as Illinois takes on Michigan in Big Ten action:
Former Illini guard turned ESPN analyst Sean Harrington didn't know when he recorded his gameday breakdown of Illinois-Michigan that Hunter Dickinson wouldn't play. Also, that's a thing.
Still, if you want strong analysis, Harrington's got you covered.
Brad Underwood spent a moment during Illinois' last home game trying to rile up the Orange Krush-less State Farm Center crowd. Underwood followed up that win against Maryland by pointing out the next two games (tonight against Michigan and Monday against Purdue) would happen without the Krush, too.
Brad Underwood wants the #Illini crowd to get its "rowdy on" tonight. And this is not meant as a slight, but we'll see if the Old Krush can bring it.— Scott Richey (@srrichey) January 15, 2022
Underwood had some, let's say, advice for Illinois fans during his Thursday afternoon press conference.
"I think there’s some fine establishments a few people can partake in before," Underwood said. "Just have fun. Show up. Have fun. It’s going to be an elite college basketball game between two elite programs with really rich histories and they’ve got really good players in the game.
If people can come enjoy that and have fun and cheer like hell for their home team, man, that’s what makes this sport special and these games special and what makes Illinois basketball special. If they happen to go out for an early, early dinner and it happens to include happy hour … (a thumbs up was given)."
So ... about that Kofi Cockburn vs. Hunter Dickinson matchup. It might not happen. Tipoff is in about 45 minutes, and there's still been no sight of Dickinson during pregame warmups.
That certainly changes the dynamic of the game if he doesn't play. Michigan would have to try and defend Cockburn with either Brandon Johns Jr. (6-foot-8, 240 pounds) or Moussa Diabate (6-11, 210) or maybe Tre Williams (6-7, 230). Diabate has the bouncy length, but he gives up 75 pounds to Cockburn. Best of luck to any of those guys.
Dickinson is also Michigan's leading scorer and rebounder. There's no clear, immediate replacement for his production. Might be a tough night for the Wolverines if he's unavailable.
The matchup to match tonight (given most of Michigan's players have struggled at times this season) is Kofi Cockburn vs. Hunter Dickinson. That probably would have been the case anyway, but Dickinson at least has been steady if the Wolverines as a team haven't been.
Cockburn had the upper hand last year, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds to Dickinson's six points and five rebounds in Illinois' blowout win in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I thought both guys last year were elite defensively," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "I don’t think either one of them scored on each other. Hunter is an elite defender, as is Kofi. They made it really, really hard. It was a game we were effective in guarding them. We did a really good job on their perimeter players.
"Hunter’s a good player. He’s going to pop out. In their big lineup, they play him more as a 4 than he is a 5. He’s going to shoot threes. He’s going to shoot 15- to 17-footers. I would expect him to play out there and try to draw Kofi away if that's the matchup we go with at times and put him in isolation down low. They tried to do that multiple games, and I wouldn’t expect this one to be any different."
Has there been a more anticipated game on the Illinois schedule than this one? The argument for another would take some doing.
This is Michigan. The same Michigan that claimed the Big Ten regular season title last season despite playing three fewer games than the Illini. The same conference championship "controversy" that sparked a strongly-worded letter from Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman angling to raise two banners at State Farm Center from the 2020-21 season.
Michigan — or at least sophomore center Hunter Dickinson is on record as disliking Illinois. Illini fans, at least, can't stand the Wolverines. This is what college basketball is all about.
Two talented teams (and Michigan has the talent, if not the results this year) squaring off in a challenging conference in front of a sold out arena. What more could you ask for?
The actual basketball that will be played tonight is kind of a mystery. Illinois is coming off a win (but not it's greatest performance) at Nebraska. Michigan hasn't played since Jan. 4 as it went through its own COVID-19 pause.
"The unknown," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "You’re not sure who’s had it and who hasn’t. How they’ve practiced. I’m expecting a full team, and we’re going to get Michigan’s best shot. I’m not going to look at it any other way."