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With Scott Richey out of town leading our coverage of the Illinois football team at the Redbox Bowl in the Bay Area, yours truly will be pinch-hitting from our courtside perch at State Farm Center for Sunday's 1 p.m. Illinois men's basketball nonconference finale against North Carolina A&T. Then, as always, head to IlliniHQ.com for more coverage postgame of Brad Underwood's Illini.

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Some random thoughts ahead of today's game ...

— Kofi Cockburn won't be facing the same size that Missouri sent at Illinois' freshman center in St. Louis. The freshman 7-footer has a decisive size advantage over much of North Carolina A&T's lineup. The tallest players in the Aggies' starting five is 6-foot-8 Ronald Jackson and 6-foot-8 Devin Haygood. Cockburn also has a decisive weight advantage at 290 pounds compared to the likes of Jackson (205) and Haygood (180). 

— Today's game against a MEAC opponent could be a get-right game for the likes of Trent Frazier, Andres Feliz and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Frazier had five points against Missouri, while Bezhanishvili had four points and five rebounds and Feliz was held scoreless. 

— Alan Griffin was one of the few players Brad Underwood pointed out as playing well against Missouri. Asked if the “chippiness” he brought against the Tigers is an important aspect of his game, Griffin said yes. "When you’re on the court, you’ve got no friends," the Illinois sophomore said Saturday. "Nobody." 

— Over/under on the times North Carolina A&T is called "North Carolina AT&T" on accident? Don't laugh. That extra "T" was added during a question posed to Alan Griffin during Saturday's press conference. Though, in a joking matter. 

— Curious to see what attendance looks like today at State Farm Center. Sunday afternoon game. Week 17 in the NFL with the Bears playing at noon. Students on break. That might not help matters. 

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Brad Underwood was curious how his players might respond to a Dec. 21 Braggin' Rights loss to Missouri.

In the postgame, he questioned the fight his team showed in a 63-56 loss to the Tigers, a second straight loss by the Illini to their rival.

Underwood wasn't backing down from that claim when he met with the media Saturday at Ubben Basketball Complex.

"There's not a whole lot to say about Missouri that hasn't been said about that game," Underwood said. "They outfought us, they outcompeted us, they outtoughed us. We are very aware of that. Guys were not pleased, I'll use that word, with the effort and the tenacity with which we played. Very uncharacteristic-like."

Underwood said it was the "million-dollar question" about what response he would see from his players when the Illini returned to C-U for practice on Thursday night.

So far, so good, according to Underwood.

Now, the Illini (8-3) face a 3-10 Aggies program that is without its head coach, as Jay Joyner was suspended indefinitely by the university on Friday for undisclosed reasons. 

The university, in a press release, said it would not comment on Joyner's suspension "until the personnel matter is resolved."

After evening tipoffs in each of its first eight games, Illinois will play its fourth afternoon game in the past five, with the lone exception the Illini's 71-62 upset win over then-No. 5 Michigan on Dec. 11 at State Farm Center. 

Illinois started strong in a late-afternoon tip at Maryland on Dec. 7 before the Terrapins rallied to clip the Illini 59-58 in College Park, Md.

The Illini did however beat Old Dominion in another late-afternoon game a week later, 69-55, before last Saturday's loss to Missouri in St. Louis in a game that started at noon. 

So, what to expect in another early afternoon game?

"There's always a little apprehension," Underwood said. "I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Coming off of Christmas break, we had a day longer Christmas break than we had in the past. It's no different than why every coach is apprehensive ... you look at Missouri they had an extra week of preparation with finals (a week earlier). They were out of school, and we were in finals until the last day and guys missing practice. You always have apprehension about those things ." 

Sports Copy Editor

Joe Vozzelli Jr. is a sports copy editor at The News-Gazette. His email is jvozzelli@news-gazette.com.