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.
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.