A Future, Renewed: Class of 2019 Brings Needed Positivity and Hope

From the darkness, light.

As an Illini fan who was born in 1997, life has been tough in the revenue-sports section of my favorite university’s sports teams. It hasn’t always been bad, and I have gotten to watch elite athletes like Derron Williams and Dee Brown run the court, and Rashard Mendenhall and Vontae Davis perform on the gridiron, but for the revenue sports in my lifetime, it’s been far from great.

If all of the recruits that Illinois currently boasts for their 2019 recruiting class turn out to be as good as advertised, which so far they surely have looked the part, this class could be one of the best Illinois recruiting classes, in any sport, for as long as I’ve been alive. Sure, 21 years isn’t that long (or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself) but this could be a defining moment for the University of Illinois Athletics Department going forward.

And it’s well deserved.

For far too long, Illini fans have struggled in the misery and mediocracy of their revenue sports. And yes, before I’m corrected on this, I know non-revenue sports have been good if not great in recent years. As an avid baseball and volleyball player and fan, I couldn’t be happier, and as a student, it’s been an absolute blast to witness the success of these programs.

But what’s been missing in this consistent craving of success? Football and basketball.

Not only does the Illinois’ women’s basketball team look completely different than in years past, starting off the season with good non-conference play and a fresh feel under Head Coach Nancy Fahey, but the 2019 recruiting class for Illinois football looks to be a program-changer.

Spite me if you must, but despite some bad losses recently, I still have (maybe naïve) faith in Brad Underwood’s Illinois basketball program.

As I look to graduate after four (sometimes long) years at the University of Illinois, I look back at the sports I’ve witnessed and cast a sad shadow on the basketball and football programs. As a four-year member of both the Orange Krush and the Block I, far too long was I led to disappointment. That could all change with the going forward of the 2019 class.

Many of you know that my favorite subject so far in my young journalism career has been covering the NFL Draft and NFL prospects playing in the NCAA. For far too long have I yearned for a true NFL prospect to come out of this Illini program.

My heart has been enlightened in recent years with performances from Illini alums like Clayton Fejedelem, Geronimo Allison, Justin Hardee, and many other UDFAs and late-round draftees that have risen to the occasion of the NFL.

Though I’ve loved these moments of greatness, and greatly respect those athletes and every athlete to come through the program, it isn’t enough. And with the classes of 2018 and 2019, it might be time that I, and Illini fans like me, get some much-needed encouragement in that front.

Though it won’t be a while until prospects like Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper make it through the ranks and (knock on wood) declare for the NFL Draft, the thought of it should serve to provide a sense of hope for Illini fans.

With the commitment of Shammond Cooper tonight at the All-American Game, and the incoming transfer of the former MVP of that game in ex-Miami star Jeff Thomas, the future is finally looking up for Illini fans, and the program alike.

Though the Illini recruiting class won’t show that much better on the recruiting boards thanks to the way most recruiting services work, Cooper’s commitment brings a much-needed bright spot for a revenue-sports program that has been dreadful so far this year. Though there have been flashes where Illini basketball and football looked the part of a developing team that could have a presence in the Big Ten conference, it has seemed as though fate itself were against the Fighting Illini.

But for Illini football? There’s hope.

The Illini have recently landed great commitments from athletes like Williams, Beason, and Cooper, and are winning competitive recruiting battles all over the country in order to try to turn the program around.

I’ll have a more technically focused breakdown of what Shammond Cooper brings to the Illini team in the future, the do-it-all linebacker will fill what has been a hole at the linebacker spot for the Illini for years on end, but perhaps the most important thing that Cooper does for the Illini is provide hope.

I’ll be graduating from the prestigious Alma Mater in May, (likely) without seeing a Basketball team go to the NCAA Tournament, and definitely without seeing a Football team go to a bowl game.

As I make my exit from my home of four years, I’ll be looking forward to the great things to come.

The main reason I’m writing this is to tell— no, insist – Illini fans to keep their heads held high and eyes focused on the future. As a journalist, I’m not one to voice my opinions out loud, but until my next article, I’ll leave you with this opinion:

The future is bright.

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Excitement in Littyville

At the conclusion of the 2018 season, with bad defense and a lull in recruiting, it seemed that the term Littyville had come and gone like Halley’s Comet.

But, in the week before Christmas, Lovie Smith’s Illini have gotten better.  Much better.  And for the first time since Ron Zook’s Illini started 6-0 in 2011, Illini fans have visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads.

Illinois concluded the early scholarship signing period with a small but stout class, headlined by 2 Under Armour All-Americans, one on each side of the ball.  Quarterback Isaiah Williams from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis brings electric playmaking ability to offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s spread-option attack.  Williams is fast, with elite vision and cutting ability.  He throws well, being very consistent on deep balls and showing a feathery touch on swing passes and screens.  Williams will be a dangerous running threat on designed run-pass options but will also be lethal when scrambling.

Scrambling quarterbacks force the defense into much more zone coverage than they would sometimes prefer to play, simply because in man coverage, a 4 vertical route by the receivers takes four sets of eyes off a dangerous runner.

Marquez Beason, a corner from Duncanville, Texas gives the Illinois secondary a jet-pack of speed, with great fluidity, ball skills and competitiveness.  Beason talks and plays with some swagger, and immediately upgrades the back 1/3 of the Illinois defense, a defense that was historically bad last year and must improve in order to allow the Illini to post more wins in 2019.

Illinois also landed a terrific group of defensive linemen, with Keith Randolph of Belleville, Moses Okpala of Ladue, Missouri, and Seth Coleman of Melbourne, Florida.  All 3 are high floor, high ceiling athletes.  Randolph and Okpala have the frame to eventually slide inside, but Coleman will remain on the edge.  Okpala is a mountain of a man, 6’7″ and 260 lbs.  All 3 have the athleticism to be very good high school basketball players and  by 2021 project to the exactly the type of physical and fast athletes Illinois will need to compete with the rugged offensive lines in the Big Ten West.

Then, lest we forget, more presents are under the tree for Illini faithful:  transfers.  Not scrap heap transfers, but transfers with legitimate high end, championship potential.

The headliner is electric wide receiver Jeff Thomas, hometown East St Louis.  Thomas had two years of experience at Miami, where, quite frankly, he was underutilized.  Thomas, also an Under Armour All-American, is a human cheat code with an extra gear and incredible change of direction.  Possessing great hands, Thomas has the potential to be a first round NFL draft choice and simply the most electrifying player in Illinois football history.  Illinois must hope he gets a transfer waiver from the NCAA to play next year or he may never see the field in Champaign.  Sugar plums, sugar plums.

Also rumored to be transferring in is Thomas’ ex-teammate Rey Estes, who has been playing some defensive back at the University of Minnesota the last two seasons.  If Estes comes to Illinois, he may be a slash-type offensive player or continue on the defensive side.  Estes is a solid depth piece and, again, a piece of the puzzle to potentially boost Illinois recruiting in the hotbed of East St. Louis.

Two other names to watch on the transfer wire:  WR AD Miller from Oklahoma, who has already applied for admission to Illinois, and TE Luke Ford, a Georgia Bulldog freshman from Carterville, IL.  Both players would be significant talent upgrade to Illinois football.

Illinois will already be counting on adding significant talent to the field from players who are returning from injury or suspension or academic hold-outs.

Linebacker Milo Eifler, a former top 60 player in the country, transferred in from Washington.  Although he was injured in practice this season, he should be good to go in the spring and would be the favorite to take over at LB for DelShawn Phillips.  Eifler looks the part of a rugged, physical Power 5 linebacker.  Let’s hope he plays tougher than a Mary Kay consultant on the field.

Massive offensive lineman Larry Boyd is poised to return to action to augment the Illinois offensive line.  Boyd, who had moments of stardom as a true freshman, had a year to focus on his academics and citizenship while working on the scout team as a redshirt in 2018.  A young man with NFL potential, Boyd could be even better than the player he may replace, senior Nick Allegretti.

Strong and athletic Verdis Brown comes off a red-shirt freshman season in which he practiced and got his academics in line.  Brown has an exceptionally wide body, but great strength and mobility, which will make him an immediate upgrade for Illinois at defensive tackle or nose guard.

And then the Illini fans are waiting to see who fills out Lovie Smith’s 2019 coaching staff.

In 2018, Illinois lost defensive line coach Mike Phair to the Indianapolis Colts.  His replacement, Southern Cal grad assistant Austin Clark oversaw a unit that was quite possibly the worst position group of any Big Ten program.  Other than sophomore Bobby Roundtree, the Illinois defensive line was not below average, they were horrible.  Like a kinetic chain, when your defensive line is awful, is makes life very difficult on the linebackers and when the secondary is counted so heavily for run support, pass coverage suffers.  In other words, the key to good defense starts up front.

Now, Clark absolutely proved his worth on the recruiting trail and I’m giving Lovie Smith the benefit of the doubt in hiring a smart coach.  So, I’m giving Clark a pass on his bad unit, which means the blame falls on players who just weren’t very good.  Jamal Milan was injured, as was Jamal Woods.  Illinois improves when they are healthy.  Isaiah Gay was just dreadful and defensive end, and Owen Carney was below average.  Illinois struggled all year to contain the edge, and I believe that they made a conscious decision to overplay the middle and gamble that they could run to the edge.  Unfortunately, the Illinois linebackers were not athletic enough to do that against an opponent not named Kent State.

During 2018, Illinois lost CB coach Donnie Abraham and Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson as well.  These openings remain, and, while the openings were filled with family and graduate assistants, the Illini faithful feel like a seasoned Defensive Coordinator should take over.  Speculation has Lovie Smith calling the defense himself.  Sounds good to me, as long as Smith hires effective recruiters and coordinators to fill out the staff.

With no announcements so far, I have to believe that those hires are coming either from some highly successful college programs or from the NFL.  One name from the college ranks to keep an eye on, Glenn Schumann, the young inside linebackers coach at the University of Georgia.  Schumann worked six years at Alabama under Nick Saban before joining Kirby Smart in Athens.  He is young and considered a savant of sorts in college football.  He makes great money at Georgia, and would probably need the title of defensive coordinator to come to Illinois, but as long as Lovie is calling the shots at first, I think this coach is a coach who could eventually be Lovie’s successor.

Lovie still has a deep Rolodex of NFL contacts, and at the conclusion of the NFL season there are always moving parts in the NFL coaching world.  I suspect the Illinois defensive hires will be made in early January following the American Football Coaches Association clinic.

Illinois Looks to Win its 6th Straight in the Annual Braggin’ Rights Game against the Missouri Tigers

The Illinois Fighting Illini and the Missouri Tigers will face off yet again at the Enterprise Center in Saint Louis, Missouri for the annual Braggin’ Rights game. This series first began in the 1980’s with the Illini winning the matchup 84-62. Since then there have been some fantastic games like the 108-107 triple-overtime game where the Missouri Tigers were victorious , and who could forget the recent Rayvonte Rice step-back three point jumper to sink Missouri as time expired in 2014. Illinois has been dominant in the last few years winning every game in the series since the 2013-2014 season. Currently, the Fighting Illini lead the series 25-12 and would be looking to win their sixth straight.

Some fans believe that the Braggin’ Rights game has lacked some of its luster in recent years as both basketball programs have been going through rebuilding years. I have heard rumors that this year’s game will be back to normal attendance which will bring back one of the great atmospheres in all of college basketball rivalry games.

THE MISSOURI TIGERS

The Missouri Tigers (7-3) come into the Braggin’ Rights game straight off a 71-56 victory against the Xavier Musketeers on Tuesday night. Infamous to Illinois fans, Missouri C Jeremiah Tilmon had a career game scoring 23 points on 10-13 shooting while also grabbing 10 rebounds. Former Illinois guard and Mr. Illinois Basketball winner Mark Smith has also been enjoying a strong start to the season averaging 12 points per game, 6 rebounds a game, while shooting 47% from three point range. For Smith, it will be a pretty special game for him Saturday as he’ll have an opportunity to prove his former Head Coach Brad Underwood wrong about letting him leave the program.

Finally, Mizzou’s most important player might be senior guard Jordan Geist as he is the most experienced player on this Mizzou roster. During the season Geist is averaging 12.7 points per game, 4.3 rebounds a game, and 2.4 assists a game. Two years ago, Geist scored his Braggin’ Rights career high of 12 points in a loss to the Illini. This will be his last year to try and break that spell of no Braggin’ Rights victories in his time at Missouri.

Projected Starting 5:

G Mark Smith So.

G Jordan Geist Sr.

G Javon Pickett So.

F Kevin Puryear Sr.

C Jeremiah Tilmon So.

Under the Radar Player to Watch:

G Torrence Watson Fr.

THE ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

The Illinois Fighting Illini (4-7) have been playing better as of late as they are currently riding a two game win streak against the UNLV Running Rebels and the East Tennessee State Buccaneers. In both games, the Illini had solid half-time leads before playing less than stellar second halves. Playing a full forty minute game is something that this group needs to keep working on, granted they were without three significant players against ETSU in freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu, freshman guard Alan Griffin, and freshman small forward Tevian Jones. Dosunmu and Griffin are both expected to play against Missouri while Jones’ situation is still up in the air.

Trent Frazier has been fantastic in his last two games despite his recent 3-4 game slump. The sophomore guard is averaging 15.4 points per game, 2.4 rebounds per game, and 3.4 assists per game. He will have to have another strong performance if the Illini are to pull off their 6th straight victory in the series. Another pleasant surprise for Illini fans is the play of freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili as he has emerged as a leader on and off the court for this young Illini squad. If he can clean up the fouls, his offensive versatility will be a huge asset to Underwood’s offense.

Projected Starting 5:

G Ayo Dosunmu Fr.

G Trent Frazier So.

G Aaron Jordan Sr.

F Kipper Nichols

F Giorgi Bezhanishvili

Under the Radar Player to Watch:

F Samba Kane Fr.

Major Storyline

Once thought to be the next great duo in orange and blue, the matchup of Trent Frazier and Mark Smith will be one that will intrigue many. When Smith came to Illinois he was the face of the program and many fans believed he’d finally be that state player that would take the program back to the promise land. Things didn’t workout that way despite Underwood continuously comparing Smith to Jason Kidd. Smith then decided that he would transfer out of Illinois once Trent Frazier became the face of the program. Once Smith decided to transfer to Missouri, he became one of the most infamous individuals in Illinois history; rivaling former Iowa Assistant Bruce Pearl for his recruiting antics with the Illini. All eyes will be on him as he returns to face his former teammates.

Prediction

Neither team is great this year but that won’t take anything away from how competitive this rivalry game will be. Expect things to get a bit chippy at times as both teams will be trying to establish their game plans. It’ll be a battle between the strengths of both teams; the guard play of the Illini and the forward play for Missouri. Last year, the Illini owned the first half with a 20 point half-time lead over the Missouri Tigers before Mizzou clawed themselves back in and fell just short of completing the comeback in the second half. I’m picking this game to come down to the wire as it almost always does.

Prediction

Illinois 67 Missouri 66

Line: Illinois -1.0

O/U: 139

Illinois Basketball vs Georgetown: Keys to the Game

Tonight the Illinois Fighting Illini will take to the Lou Henson Court at the State Farm Center in Champaign for their second game of the regular season.

The Illini started off the season in front of a decent crowd, taking down Evansville (IN) in big fashion, by a score of 99-60. The Illini put on one of their best offensive showings under Brad Underwood, led by highly touted freshman, and former 5-star recruit,  Ayo Dosumnu who filled the stats sheet with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 24 minutes on the court.

One of only two seniors on the team, Aaron Jordan, contributed to the cause with 19 points of his own, making 7 of his 12 shots. Junior JUCO Transfer Andres Feliz, along with sophomore Trent Frazier, also grabbed big numbers for the Illini, with 16 points and 10 points, respectively. Frazier assisted on seven Illinois scores, with Feliz assisting on three himself, along with grabbing three rebounds.

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the leading rebounder for Illinois, with 10 rebounds in his debut game in the orange and blue.

Evansville is a good team when you let them catch-and-shoot, and they showed that against the Illini, but Brad Underwood’s defense did enough, holding the Purple Aces to just 6 of 24 shooting from behind the arc.

Tonight, however, will be a completely different opponent for the Illini, as they will play host to the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas will serve as the first true test to where this Illinois program stands in its second year under Head Coach Brad Underwood, but what will it take for Underwood and his players to get the job done?

Here’s my thoughts.

 

Keys to the Game

 

Can Illinois contain the Georgetown frontcourt?

Illinois Basketball has had a problem in recent years. Amidst all of the other things that you can say about the Illinois program since the last glimpses of historical success, this problem has stood (almost) the test of time.

Illinois lacks a true Big Ten Caliber center, or do they?

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili pulled down 10 rebounds last week, and took advantage of a massive height advantage against Evansville (who were missing their starting Center, due to a suspension). Other Freshman Samba Kane was inactive against Evansville due to a violation of team rules, but Brad Underwood has confirmed he will be available for tonight’s game. Graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa’s status is still up in air, as he attempts to make up ground lost with his new program due to an injury that kept him out of early season practices. De La Rosa will be a fantastic addition to the Illinois program when he is healthy, but for now, his availability is unclear headed into this game.

Georgetown comes to town with a height advantage in the paint, and Hoyas center Jessie Govan is a legit NBA prospect, and could be one of the best big men the Illini face this season. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on the season.

The responsibility of containing Govan will fall largely on the shoulders of true freshman Bezhanishvili, along with Samba Kane coming in for occasional reps. Kipper Nichols experience could also come into play in out-rebounding Govan, as last season he often featured against opponents who had a height advantage. Bezhanishvili will come into a battle against Govan that will, undoubtedly, allow him to continue to learn and develop.

Should the fan-favorite freshman be able to contain Govan, the Illini will feel they have a real chance at going to 2-0 on the season.

 

Can the Illinois Guards continue to score at a high rate?

In their last game, the Illinois “Three-Headed Monster” of sophomore Trent Frazier, freshman Ayo Dosunmu, and junior Andres Feliz combined to score a massive 44 points for the Illini. They also combined to perform well in the rebounding and assist category.

Brad Underwood feels great about this guard combination, aided by defensive-standout DaMonte Williams, and freshman Alan Griffin, who was a standout in New York as a hot-handed shooter. With so much youth and talent on the roster, the Illini will hope their proficiency in small-ball will allow them to overcome any height disadvantage they face tonight against the Hoyas, and for the rest of the season.

Small, fast-paced play is a virtual “Ten Commandment” of Brad Underwood basketball, and they’ll look to continue to improve in that category as they  come up against a talented group of young guards, including the high-flying Mac McClung.

The young Illinois guards will continue to try to perform, and could prove too big a task for even talented young guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo. The duo is currently playing in its third collegiate matchup, and will face its toughest test yet in an underrated group of Illini guards.

If all four young guards are at the top of their game in the game tonight, it could be a heck of an early-season matchup for the two combinations.

 

Can Illinois continue to force massive amounts of turnovers?

In their game against Evansville, the full-court pressure and half-court pressure of the Illini seemed to overwhelm the Purple Aces at times.

In fashion with that trend, the Aces turned the ball over a massive 24 times. The Illini capitalized, and turned those turnovers into several fastbreaks throughout the night. Illinois, as stated above, faces another group of young guards, but the Hoyas also boast an older group of starters and reserves than Evansville did, and turnovers could be harder to come by.

Last season, the Illini performed well in the turnover category. This season’s recruiting class increased the capabilities of the Illini in the defensive category, with the addition of length and quickness when compared to last year’s roster.

Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu was known for his quick hands in high school, and has already showed the capability to force turnovers in the young season. Add that to Brad Underwood’s defensive style, which is consistently changing and capitalizing on the mistakes of opposing offenses, and it bodes well for the Illini in the turnover category.

To me the second most important thing the Illini have to do tonight, besides overcoming a height advantage, will be forcing the talented young duo of  McClung and Akinjo to turn the ball over. If the guards have trouble controlling the ball, it will be much harder for Georgetown to take advantage of the height difference between the two teams.

 

Illinois face a wholly different task tonight against the Hoyas, but if they can force turnovers, overcome the height difference, and continue to provide offensive firepower, they should move to 2-0 on the young season before being tested in the Maui invitational.

New look Illini get the better of Illinois Wesleyan

A 7 pm ET tip-off time. A sea of orange and blue. Illinois basketball is less than a week away from their season opener against the Evansville Aces at the State Farm Center in Urbana-Champaign. Tonight provided a glimpse at the possibilities of various lineups that Coach Underwood could employ throughout the season. The starting 5 of

G Ayo Dosunmu (Fr.)

G Trent Frazier (Soph.)

G Aaron Jordan (Sr.)

F Kipper Nichols (Jr.)

F Giorgi Bezhanishvilli (Fr.)

got off to a strong start start tonight. In fact, this team could be the most entertaining team that the Illini have had since the 2012-2013 Illini squad.

What We Learned 

Well these early exhibition games never really tell us too much about either team because each team is still learning the X’s and O’s of their system. From the Illini’s point of view, I think it is very clear that they will continue to employ Brad Underwood’s pressure defense that was used last year. Coach Underwood also looks like he wants to his press to a full-court press which proved to be very helpful tonight.

Next, I thought a lot of performances stood out tonight. Firstly, sophomore guard Trent Frazier didn’t miss a beat tonight and was second on the Illini in scoring with 19 PTS on 6 of 9 shooting and he chippped in with 5 AST. Frazier almost won B1G Ten Freshman of the Year last year and it wouldn’t surprsise me if he has an even better season this year. Secondly, junior guard Andres Feliz looked really really good and had many moments that proved why he was the #1 JUCO point guard in the 2018 class. He finished the game as the Illini’s leading scorer with 20 PTS. If he can continue this production throughout this season, he can really help take the pressure off of Trent Frazier. Lastly, I loved the way that freshman big man Giorgi Bezhanishvilli played tonight. Yes, I know he got into foul trouble but when he was on the court, he brought energy to this team that I haven’t seen a big man provide the Illini in a very long time. He added 9 PTS on 2 of 4 shooting and 4 rebounds. Bezhanishvilli also has an incredible skill-set where he has great vision, is capable of knocking down threes with ease, and being able to finish around the rim. This is going to serve him well as this season goes on and it’ll be difficult for Coach Underwood to keep him off the court. There were other good performances from players such as freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu (13 PTS) , sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams (1 point, 4 rebounds, 3 AST, and three charges), and senior guard Aaron Jordan (9 PTS and 7 Rebounds) but those three performances stood out the most to me.

The Illinois Fighting Illini will officially get their 2018-2019 basketball season underway against the Evansville Aces on Thursday November 8 at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. in the Maui On The Mainland game.

Illini Volleyball Continues Stellar Season, Eyes NCAA Tournament

The fourth-ranked University of Illinois Fighting Illini volleyball team made yet another headline-worthy moment to add onto their (frankly, giant) pile of moments for the season.

That’s right, not only in this season has Illini-star Ali Bastianelli set the record for most blocks in Illinois history, but the team tied yet another mark this week.

The Illini team hit a historic high in the NCAA rankings this week, being listed at No. 2 on the NCAA Stats RPI, and No. 4 overall on the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. After a big win on the road at Nebraska, last year’s NCAA Champion, the Illini bolted up the rankings to hit their highest ranking since the magical 2011 season in which the Illini made their way to the NCAA Championship game.

Nebraska, a perennial contender in the hunt for NCAA Volleyball titles, is known as a tough challenge for just about any team.

Beating them on the road? That’s on another level.

The (then-ranked #6) Illini continued their great run this season, beating (then ninth ranked) Nebraska in Lincoln, on their own court, three sets to one. The Illini were led by 49 assists from star setter Jordyn Poulter, with 23 of those sets going towards kills from hitter Jacqueline Quade.

To speak on the star-power of this team: Poulter and Ali Bastianelli, who was tied for the team-lead in blocks on the night, were named finalists of the NCAA Senior Class award, an award given to top athletes from top sports, at the end of the year.

Poulter currently sits at the top of the Big Ten and ranks sixth in the NCAA with 11.77 assists per set, with Bastianelli coming in at third in the Big Ten and 21st in the NCAA in blocks per game.

Spectacular team defense was also key to the Illini’s win over the Cornhuskers, with Morgan O’Brien recording her career high in digs with a MASSIVE 32 digs in Lincoln. Not too far behind was Taylor Kuper, who finished with 25 digs against the Cornhuskers.

The team routinely took away for-sure points from Nebraska and turned them into their own positive plays, including an incredible last rally in which Poulter snuck a set over the net for the game-winner.

Team performances like that will be key to the success of the Illini going forward.

So what’s next for the Illini after one of the biggest road wins of the season?

The Illini have now moved to 9-3 in the Big Ten, and face eight more matches against Big Ten opponents before they finish their regular season. The Illini sit at 7-3 on their last ten, with an active 5-game win-streak.

The Illini sit at 20-3 overall, and 9-3 in the Big Ten, which puts them second behind the undefeated Minnesota Gophers. They’ll move on to face Purdue (8-4, 5th in Big Ten) and a tough team in Penn State (currently 9-3, tied for 2nd in Big Ten) during their home-stretch of games which also includes Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland. Michigan State, and Rutgers.

Head Coach Chris Tamas and his team will face both of these tough teams at Huff Hall while they fight for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, in the midst of one of their best seasons since the Illini made their first ever appearance in the NCAA Championship game, before falling 3-1 to USC.

Many think that the Illini could be posed to make a similarly deep tournament run with this year’s well-rounded team.

The NCAA Volleyball tournament will start on November 29th this year, with 64 teams to start the tournament, and Tamas will be looking to guide the Illini through the competition, and to continue making history for the program.

Keep an eye on the Illini.

Illinois Basketball; Illinois Wesleyan Matchup Preview/Prediction

Illinois Fighting Illini basketball is back this Friday and I, like many fans, can’t wait to see how Brad Underwood’s new group looks come game time.

Brad Underwood’s first season in charge didn’t exactly get off to a “Flying Illini” start as his team went 14-18 overall and 4-14 in conference play. This came as a surprise to many Illini fans as Coach Underwood never had a losing record in any of his previous years as a Head Coach. Another issue that concerned many Illini fans this past off-season was the many departures that occured during the culmination of last year. Firstly, junior forward Leron Black and the Illini’s leading scorer last season, moved on from the program to pursue his professional basketball career. Next, former Illini freshman center Greg Eboigbodin, freshman forward Matic Vesel, junior forward Michael Finke, sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas, and freshman guard Mark Smith all transfered out to find new opportunities. Finally, 5th year guard Mark Alstork also departed the program as he finished his years of eligibility.

That’s a lot of change to a first year Head Coach’s team. Despite only having three returning players that played major minutes last season, Brad Underwood’s group might have an optimistic outlook of this upcoming season.

The Illinois coaching staff really pulled off an impressive first class ranking twenty-fifth nationally by 247 Sports. The class was headlined by 5-star top 30 national & two time State Championship winner Ayo Dosunmu. The former Mac Irvin Fire and Morgan Park standout is a combo guard who has outstanding quickness and a special ability to get to the rim and score at will. He was also named to the Third Preseason All-B1G team. Another member of the 2018 class that stands out to me is Tevian Jones. He is probably one of the most athletically gifted players that the Illini have had since Joseph Bertrand. He is a special player who, because of his size at 6-6 and 220 lbs and his strong shooting capability, can force favorable matchups for the Illini. He is probably the player I am most excited about in this class. Finally, the third player of this class that stands out to me is center Samba Kane. Samba is a very similar player to former Illini Greg Eboigbodin except I think Samba has a better ability to run the court and thus is a better fit for Brad Underwood’s roster. He is very raw on the offensive end but I think he will have a huge impact on defensive end this season. It is way to early to predict where his career will go, but my bold prediction is that he will challenge Nnanna Egwu for All-Time Career Blocked Shots at Illinios.

Who Will Be The Starting 5?

Well as we all know from last year, Coach Underwood doesn’t really care who starts the game for him, he just wants to have a balanced team. Therefore it”ll be extremely intruging to see if Coach Underwood elects to play more small-ball lineups as that would allow the Illini to be more dynamic on offense. Things could change, but this is my projected starting 5 for the Illini against Illinois Wesleyan.

Andres Feliz G (Jr.)

Andres Feliz commit to Illinois late in the recruiting process and I think he was an absolute steal for this year’s team. From a national perspective, Feliz was ranked as the #1 JUCO PG in the 2018 class. Feliz has the ability to not only be a effective ball-handler but he is more than capable of being a “go to scorer” in Brad Underwood’s offense.

Trent Frazier G (Soph.)

Well, if you don’t know who this guy is, you missed an absolutely special freshman season from the Florida native. Frazier averaged 12.5 PTS ,1.5 REB and 3.1 AST over the course of the year. Those stats don’t even tell the entire story as Frazier not only became a leader and fan favorite, but also became the face of the Illini program. It’ll be interesting to see if he is able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump this season as he will be an integral part of his team’s success.

Ayo Dosunmu G (Fr.)

Yeah… just understand this when it comes to Ayo, he is an absolute stud, and has been the Illini best player in many practices.

Kipper Nichols F (Jr.)

Kipper Nichols, often referred to as the jokester on the team, is a player that has “untapped potential”, as Coach Underwood stated last year. Nichols had a solid season last year as he averaged 10 PTS, 4.2 REB, 0.7 AST per game. The most disappointing part of Nichols is he could have been the most talented player on the team, but he was probably the most inconsistent player for the Illini last year. For example, Nichols would be on fire during a game, and then would miss on a fast break lay-up soon after. Even on the defensive side of the ball, Nichols had his up and downs. Against the Michigan State Spartans, Nichols more than held his own against the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges but in other games he would be a non-factor. That cannot happen this year.

Giorgi Bezhanishvilli F (Fr.)

All off-season, Coach Underwood raved about Giorgi, Underwood stated that he was very impressed by Giorgi’s basketball IQ and by extent his ability to pass the ball really well. He is also a very capable shooter whether that be back to the basket or facing up to the rim which would mean that he will be a key recipient on a good amount of the pick and pop plays we saw the Illini run last year. Finally, Giorgi is actually quite strong of a ball-handler so his ability can further help the Illini against full-court pressure situations.

Learn about Illinois Wesleyan

Illinois Wesleyan is an elite Division III program that has enjoyed success over the last couple years and thier history, reaching 6 Final Fours in total. IWU is coming off an impressive season where they went 19-8 and won a co-CCIW Championship title with one of last season’s opponents, Augustana (IL.). In fact IWU is projected to enjoy some more success as they are ranked in the Preseason Division III Top 25 coming in at 19th in the country.This team was also fantastic from behing the three point line shooting 268-712 (.376). As a team that is outstanding and is a factor that makes it extremely difficult to guard them around the court. In their front court, they have a strong starting pair in sophomore Miles Curry and RS sophomore Alex O’Neil. IWU is also a team that was very strong at beating the full-court press and this should help them have some success against Brad Underwood’s pressure defense however thr Illini’s quickness, size, and athleticism might make it an even tougher test for IWU. Obviously, this team is good, but maybe not as talented as most Division I programs based off just sheer athleticism and size.

Who will be the Starting 5?

Brady Rose G (Sr.)

Brady Rose is a really talented player that had the option to play Divison I and Divison II basketball but chose to stay closer to home. As the Head Coaches’ son, a lot is expected out of him and he certainly delivers on that. Last year Rose averaged 21 PTS and established himself as one of the best players in Divison III basketball. Rose is also an elite shooter and if you back off him he will hurt you. He shot 71-184 (.386) from three point range despite shooting a ridiculous .447 in conference play. He also has great quickness and an extra bounce in his step, which will make him even harder for the young Illini defenders to stop him from scoring at will.

Colin Bonnett G (Sr.)

Colin Bonnett came to IWU in the same class as Rose and has been another player who has played an important part in his program’s success. Colin Bonnett has that B1G mentality about being tough and scrappy on the floor. He is what some like to call a “glue guy”. He is also talented enough to shoot it well from behind the arc while also being able to take the ball to the rim and finish with ease.

Jason Gregoire G (Sr.)

Jason Gregoire is another guy who is a great shooter however he is a pure shooter. He isn’t someone who will light you up for 20 PTS in a given night, but he can and will hurt you from deep if left open.

Miles Curry F (Jr.)

As mentioned previously, Curry is one part of a strong front court for IWU. He is a gifted player athletically which allows him to grab rebounds at a high percentage. As a slasher, he is capable of having a strong performance offensively on a given night but he is mainly referred to as the energy/hustle guy. His single-game highs last season were 15 PTS (vs North Carolina Central), 9 rebounds (vs. Birmingham-Southern) and 3 AST (vs. Fontbonne).

Alex O’Neil C (Jr.)

Originally a Creighton and St. Cloud State University commit, Alex O”Neil transferred to IWU to further pursue his basketball career. During his time at Peoria Christian High School he averaged 13..9 PTS, 9.6 REB and 5.0 BLK a game. Those are some elite numbers and it makes sense that he is one of the more elite centers in Divison III basketball. He is more of a traditional center who is very skilled with his back to the basket. He also a Divison I athleticism which will make it tough for the young Illini bigs to contest for rebounds with him.

What will happen?

In this early season Exhibition game, I expect both teams to struggle out of the gate as they are still trying to gel and get acclimated to their respective system. Therfore I would not be surprised if this is a back and forth first half where either team struggles to take charge of the game. This will also be a battle of two different rosters dealing with the debate of what is better, talent or experience. IWU is a very fundamentally sound team that will not beat themselves often, which will really test these young Illini on the defensive side of the ball. Again, not to take anything away from IWU because they are an elite program, but the Fighting Illini are the superior team in terms of talent. The Illini will look to wear down IWU with their size and athleticism and thus proving to much to handle for IWU.

Prediction: Illinois 81 Illinois-Wesleyan 65

Thank you to Bob Quillman (@IWUhoopscom) for providing insight on the Illinois-Wesleyan Men’s Basketball team

Follow me on twitter Aarman Sethi (@aarmansethi)