Illinois coach Brad Underwood saw plenty to like about Monday night’s season opener.
“I thought we played really, really hard,” he said after the Fighting Illini waxed Eastern Illinois 87-57. “It’s Game 1. There’s a lot of mistakes. It’s never real pretty. One and 0, it’s always a good thing to be that.”
No. 23 Illinois chases a 2-0 start on Friday night when it hosts Kansas City in Champaign for the first-ever matchup between the teams.
The Illini unleashed a pretty solid effort on both ends of the court in their opener. They hit nearly 47 percent of their field goal attempts, getting 24 points from Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon, Jr. to tie a career high. Underwood was most impressed with his collective defensive effort, shuttling through multiple lineup combinations and getting contributions from everywhere on an off night for sophomore R.J. Melendez.
Coleman Hawkins, one of just two returning players to crack the opening night lineup, added a career-high 23 points and hauled in 12 rebounds for the second double-double of his career. Dain Dainja chipped in a double-double of his own with 17 points and 10 boards.
Illinois grabbed 20 offensive rebounds en route to a 53-30 domination of the glass against its undersized Ohio Valley Conference foe. The Illini also forced 18 turnovers and limited Eastern Illinois to 35 percent shooting from the field.
Illinois retooled its team from last year’s Big Ten Conference regular season champs. With 7-1 Kofi Cockburn no longer around to dominate in the lane, Underwood has opted for a more positionless brand of basketball.
Want proof? Hawkins canned five 3-pointers in the first half. And his teammates actually encouraged him to gun it up even more. Shannon said he got on him during Monday morning’s shootaround for passing up an open 3.
“He doesn’t have a choice,” Shannon said. “He’s got to shoot it. He’s got to shoot all the shots he has open.”
If there was a cause for concern for the Illini, it was poor foul shooting. They were 18 of 33, and if you throw out Shannon’s 13 of 15 performance, they were 5 of 18.
Meanwhile, Kansas City (0-2) enters fresh off a competitive showing Wednesday night in a 74-63 loss at LSU. The Roos opened the season Monday with a home loss to Division II Lincoln (Mo.), but trailed by just five to a Southeastern Conference foe with 5:37 left before managing just two points for the game’s remainder.
Shemarri Allen turned in a solid all-around effort with a game-high 19 points, six rebounds and four assists. Allen is averaging 16.5 ppg so far and making 46.4 percent of his shots after scoring only 4.8 ppg last season.
First-year coach Marvin Menzies, who won 246 games over 12 seasons at New Mexico State, said Allen offers plenty of help on both ends of the floor.
“He can play multiple positions,” Menzies said. “What we’re looking to do on defense is switch a lot and we need guys who can do that. Shemarri can be a leader for us. And he’s athletic.”
RayQuandis Mitchell added 15 points and five helpers at LSU, and is hitting for 14 ppg. Kansas City has made just 35.7 percent of its field goals through two games.
–Field Level Media