Illinois men's basketball vs. Nicholls State in their season opener at State Farm Center in Champaign on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
It was hardly pretty, but the Illini begin their season 1-0 after an overtime win at home.
Our beat writer breaks down the quick hits and hands out grades to both teams after the Illini's 78-70 win in overtime.
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Brad Underwood brought up rebounding as a point of emphasis heading into Tuesday night’s 78-70 season-opening overtime victory against Nicholls State. The message got through to his players leading up to the game. Rebounding was their focus, too.
Then they showed it against the Colonels. Illinois outrebounded Nicholls State 53-23 — a key component in avoiding the Colonels’ upset attempt with 20 offensive rebounds leading to 15 second-chance points.
Senior guard Andres Feliz tied freshman center Kofi Cockburn for the team rebounding high with 11.
“I like to help the bigs,” Feliz said. “Sometimes they box out too hard and aren’t able to move and get the rebounds. That’s when I’m around to go and get the rebounds. I’m a team guy. If that’s what the team needs me to do, that’s what I’ll go and do.”
★ ★ ★
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu was named to the Naismith Award watch list Monday, the day before the 2019-20 season started. Tuesday found the Illini sophomore on the Wooden Award watch list to make it a clean sweep of being in the running for two national player of the year honors.
Dosunmu’s list of preseason accolades is a lengthy one. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound Chicago native was also named to the Cousy Award watch list putting him among the nation’s top point guards, earned Third-Team All-American honors by Sporting News and Athlon and was also a preseason All-Big Ten selection.
“You’ve got to stay humble,” Dosunmu said about the raised expectations for this season. “Humble and hungry.”
Dosunmu was one of 12 sophomores and 22 total underclassmen named to the Wooden Award watch list Tuesday. The list of preseason honorees included five other players from the Big Ten in Maryland senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., Maryland sophomore forward Jalen Smith, Penn State senior forward Lamar Stevens, Ohio State junior forward Kaleb Wesson and Michigan State senior guard Cassius Winston.
One name of note outside the Big Ten is Arizona guard Nico Mannion. Dosunmu will go head to head with the 6-6 freshman Sunday in Tuscon, Ariz., when the Illini face the No. 21 Wildcats.
★ ★ ★
Tuesday’s game against Nicholls State was Trent Frazier’s 65th playing for Illinois, tying him with classmate Da’Monte Williams. Only redshirt senior forward Kipper Nichols has appeared in more games, with the showdown against the Colonels being his 86th.
Suffice it to say, not much fazes Frazier at this point.
“I’m a veteran now,” the 6-2 lefty guard said. “I feel like there’s nothing that bothers me anymore. When I step out on that court, I just play basketball. A lot of confidence in myself. I do what I do, and I do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
★ ★ ★
Underwood has been hinting at incorporating more zone into his defensive scheme since the summer. Based on last Friday’s exhibition game against Lewis and Tuesday night’s season opener against Nicholls State, a 2-3 zone is going to have its time and place for the Illini.
Underwood is big on trying to “steal a possession.” That means Illinois could drop into that zone on a baseline or sideline out of bounds play with less than a full shot clock. Or maybe out of a timeout.
The Illinois players are fine with adding that particular defensive wrinkle, especially with big men Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili on the court.
“It helps teams from driving into the gap,” Frazier said. “Playing the zone with Kofi and Giorgi, it’s an incredible second option for our defense. We can rebound the ball and get out in transition from the zone. That’s not what we want — to go to the zone all the time — but with Giorgi and Kofi in, it’s one of our big threats.”
Bezhanishvili sees the benefits of zone defense, too. Even if Illinois’ aggressive man defense is solid.
“We play great man-to-man, in my opinion,” Bezhanishvili said. “Whenever coach feels like we need to go into zone defense, I think we’re really good in zone defense as well. Why not? We have great size. Guys are athletic and really long. You need long guys who can deflect balls and contest shots. We have that.”
Whatever defense Illinois plays, Bezhanishvili is pleased with what he and Cockburn can do playing next to each other.
“It’s pretty great,” Bezhanishvili said. “We occupy the paint. Not a lot of guys can drive (the lane) when they see Kofi and then me also in the paint at the same time. That’s a great thing to have. Once you see a big 7-footer in Kofi right there and I’m right beside him helping, that’s a pretty hard thing to go against.”
★ ★ ★
Game day is a little different for junior guard Austin Hutcherson and junior forward Jacob Grandison. Since they’re sitting out this season after transferring, their game day schedule differs from their teammates. Particularly when it comes to the weightlifting they do with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. The duo had their own session Tuesday morning.
“I’m spending lot of energy developing muscle mass on those guys right now,” Fletcher said. “They obviously don’t have to compete and don’t have to play. Their performance doesn’t have to be peak right now where the other guys are getting less volume and are not as sore. We’re just maintaining their bodies. The other two are getting a lot more volume and a lot more lifting time.”
★ ★ ★
Illinois had five players score in double figures in its exhibition win against Lewis. Tuesday’s win against Nicholls State saw four hit that mark. That balance — those different options — can be an advantage for the Illini.
“As Coach Underwood always says, the more guys you have in double digits, the better it is for the team,” Bezhanishvili said. “We play team basketball. We have a lot of guys that can provide. It’s pretty fun. You can go to different guys. Some guy might get hot, so we keep going to him. Some guy might have a bad day one day. To have a lot of options is a great thing to have.”
★ ★ ★
Morgan Park senior guard Adam Miller remains a top recruiting priority for Illinois in the Class of 2021. The Illini’s in-state push, though, only gets stronger in future classes. That became even more evident Tuesday with offers to some of Miller’s newest teammates Morgan Park teammates — 6-7 wing JJ Taylor and 6-foot guard Darrin “Dai Dai” Ames.
Taylor and Ames are Class of 2023 recruits. As in high school freshmen. The Morgan Park duo, who both also play for Mac Irvin Fire, are the second and third targets in the 2023 class for Illinois. The Illini previously offered Laurel Highlands (Pa.) point guard Rodney Gallagher.
Illinois has currently offered 32 players in the 2021 class and six in the 2022 class. Eight of those players are either playing high school basketball in Illinois or are from Illinois. From the 2021 class that includes Oak Park-River Forest wing Isaiah Barnes, Simeon guard Ahamad Bynum, Rolling Meadows guard Max Christie, Fenwick forward Bryce Hopkins, Niles Notre Dame wing Louis Lesmond, Morgan Park guard Brandon Weston and Geneva native Nate Santos now at the Loomis Chaffee School (Conn.). Tinley Park forward AJ Casey is Illinois’ lone in-state 2022 offer at the moment.