No. 11 Illinois won as expected, but not like most people would have expected.
Playing without three starters due to injuries or NCAA suspensions, the Fighting Illini could have had a tough time with a defensive-minded Jackson State team in Tuesday night’s season opener.
Instead, they roared out to a 21-2 lead and led by double figures for the final 35 minutes and 5 seconds of a 71-47 victory.
“I could not be prouder with a bunch of guys in a locker room than tonight,” said coach Brad Underwood. “And I mean that.”
Underwood hopes for that same level of happiness Friday night when Illinois hosts another 1-0 outfit, Arkansas State, in Champaign.
It’s possible that two of three starters could return after missing the opener.
Trent Frazier (shoulder) and Andre Curbelo (concussion) have a chance to dress out, which would greatly improve the Illini’s passing ability since both are natural point guards.
All-American center Kofi Cockburn won’t be back for another two games. Tuesday night was the first of his three-game suspension meted out by the NCAA for selling memorabilia a month before the state of Illinois approved legislation allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.
The Illini survived nicely without all three for one game. Their defense forced 20 turnovers and they outrebounded a physically tough opponent by 20. Their offense was spotty in terms of execution, but didn’t have to be brilliant with such a big lead throughout.
“We set out to play really, really hard, guard and rebound the basketball,” Underwood said. “And we felt like we had to do that against a team we knew is one of the better defensive teams in the country.
“It’s a really bad feeling when your top three primary ballhandlers are not in the lineup and the best player in college basketball isn’t in the lineup, either.”
Jacob Grandison was in the lineup, though, and that was enough to carry the offense. He had 20 points on just 10 shot attempts to lead all scorers. Coleman Hawkins added a career-high 13.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State also enjoyed a routine win on Tuesday night, dumping Division II Harding 81-55. The Red Wolves got a game-high 21 points from Arkansas transfer Desi Sills in just 20 minutes.
The addition of Sills to a roster that returns nearly 98 percent of its offense and 97 percent of its minutes from last season makes this an intriguing team. Arkansas State was picked just sixth in the Sun Belt Conference, even though it returned two all-conference players for the first time in 17 years.
Forward Norchad Omier averaged 12.6 points and 12.3 rebounds last season as a freshman, making him just the fourth player since 1992 to accomplish it in Division I. Omier chipped in 15 points, 12 boards and four blocked shots against Harding.
Point guard Marquis Eaton led the team in scoring at 14.2 ppg and dished out 124 assists. Eaton entered the season as the 10th-leading scorer in program history with 1,321 points.
This will be the first meeting between the programs.
–Field Level Media