Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — The result of Illinois’ exhibition opener was never really in doubt Saturday night at State Farm Center.

Even after the Illini missed eight straight shots early in the game and had just four makes in their first 15 attempts.

Sooner or later, a deeper, more talented Illinois was going to get into a rhythm against St. Francis — the in-state NAIA program out of Joliet.

To the Fighting Saints’ dismay, it was sooner. The breakthrough came with Illini center Kofi Cockburn asserting himself offensively. From there, it was mostly smooth sailing in a runaway 101-34 exhibition victory.

The real takeaways from a 67-point victory for No. 11 Illinois against an NAIA program came in broader themes despite five players finishing in double figures. Cockburn and Austin Hutcherson finished with 14 points apiece, Coleman Hawkins chipped in 13 points, Andre Curbelo had 11 points and Trent Frazier added 10 points.

Underwood and his team discussed playing with a quicker pace multiple times in the preseason. Saturday was the follow through.

Defensive rebounds — and there were plenty with St. Francis missing 40 shots and shooting 24.5 percent from the field overall — were followed by a concerted effort to push the ball up court. Illinois’ uptempo style got a little wild on occasion and Curbelo had five turnovers, but those are mistakes Underwood has shown he’ll live with to keep Curbelo’s creativity on the court.

What Illinois was able to do defensively against St. Francis was also a product of a new-look team. The Illini have a deeper rotation, and they bring some ridiculous length off the bench in Hawkins, Hutcherson and Omar Payne. Contested shots for the Saints — if Frazier and his six steals even let them get into a position to score — were the norm.

Beating St. Francis was just step one for Illinois as it builds to its Nov. 9 opener against Jackson State. The competition level should increase next Friday night against Division II Indiana (Pa.) for a truer test of where the Illini stand before the season gets real.



Nearly 600 days had passed between home games with fans at State Farm Center by the time Illinois tipped off Saturday night in its first exhibition game of the 2021-22 season against St. Francis.

“It was way different last year coming out here with no one here,” Frazier said. “Me and the guys are super excited to have everyone back in here. We’re excited to have Orange Krush back and be back under the lights at State Farm with the life back in here. State Farm Center and this life behind our back is incredible in here.”

Saturday’s crowd didn’t quite match that last home game with fans in attendance, but that final regular season game of the 2019-20 season was special. A top four finish in the Big Ten was on the line along with a double bye for the NCAA tournament. Iowa was the opponent standing in the way.

The atmosphere for that game was what Illinois coach Brad Underwood had in mind when he took the Illini job three years prior.

“That day was special,” Underwood said. “That day was electric. This building was one of the hardest places to play in the country that day. ... I feel great about where our brand is and how we’re continuing to grow. We’re not even close to where I want to be yet, but we’re starting to get there. There can be no let up. Our fans are the best and our passionate. We sold out Orange Krush tickets in less than three hours.

“Just the thought of getting 15,000 back in here excites me, and I’m looking forward to seeing how our guys react to that. ... Fans make college basketball. Student sections make college basketball. College basketball is as much about the name on the front of the jersey and that passion because it entices so many people to want to be a part of it and creates great, great memories.”



Underwood scheduled a pair of exhibition games both to get his team experience in front of a State Farm Center crowd again — particularly the freshmen, sophomores and transfers — and to give the fans more opportunities to see the team after an entire missed season of chances in 2020-21.

The makeup of Illinois’ preseason games could have been different, though. Underwood could have opted for a “secret” scrimmage and an exhibition. It just didn’t outweigh what Underwood thought could benefit his team in a pair of exhibitions.

“There’s advantages for a scrimmage, no doubt,” Underwood said. “We could meet another high major team some place and smack heads and go at it and have control of it. ... We’ve got a big group of guys that need to feel that energy (at State Farm Center).”



Illinois heads into the 2021-22 season ranked as the No. 2 team in adjusted defensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings. The Illini finished last season ranked seventh in that particular metric, and it’s a focus of this year’s team to be even better defensively.

“I hope we can position ourselves to get to where KenPom has us ranked in the preseason,” Underwood quipped. “We’re not going to get there without … we’ve got to get tougher. We’ve just got to get tougher. Being assignment sound, we’ll grow into that. Will we make some mistakes early? Absolutely, but if we don’t develop some toughness and grit and fight and get that beyond some of our veteran guys then we’re not going to reach that number.”



Frazier is one of those veteran guys Illinois will lean on defensively early in the season. The Wellington, Fla., native was an All-Big Ten Defensive Team selection last season, and he has his sights set on Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors again this season.

“Just bringing energy, being a leader,” Frazier said was important for him to pass on that defensive mindset to his teammates. “Obviously, with the younger guys everything is new. I’ve got to continue to talk and continue to challenge them in different areas where they’re uncomfortable and just continue to help them compete and have tremendous effort. That’s my whole thing. Continue to compete every day and help them out with anything.”



Underwood has his sights set on Hutcherson turning into one of Illinois’ best defenders.

The Illinois coach lauded Hutcherson’s abilities as a defender during the 2019-20 season when he was sitting out after transferring from Division III Wesleyan University (Conn.).

The Illinois staff sent Hutcherson after Ayo Dosunmu defensively on a regular basis in practice that season.

“One of the biggest things for Hutch is he’s got a chance to be an elite defender,” Underwood said. “Great quickness. Great length. Athleticism. He’s a guy that’s the area I want to see is grit.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

Trending Videos