Eighth-ranked Illinois opens the season Wednesday in the first of a self-made smorgasbord designed to prime one of the Big Ten favorites for a primetime matchup with No. 2 Baylor at the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 2.
Illinois opens the State Farm Center to North Carolina A&T on Wednesday, Wright State on Thanksgiving and Friday against Ohio. The start of the season was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s been nothing like it,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of the process of rebuilding the non-conference schedule for the Fighting Illini.
The engine for Illinois is the tandem of junior guard Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn. Both players initially entered the 2020 NBA Draft but opted instead to return and are on the 2020-21 Naismith Trophy Watch List, given to the nation’s top men’s college basketball player.
Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists as a sophomore and was named an AP Preseason All-American. Cockburn won the 2020 Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, averaging 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.
Underwood said the Illini are looking to get out of the gate with momentum, and more importantly, health.
“Our biggest concern is to try to avoid (COVID-19), so we can play Big Ten games and play as many Big Ten games as we can,” he said.
But the days of Illinois rolling into the season as a secret are over. One of seven ranked Big Ten teams in the first AP Top 25 poll, the Illini have also added the state’s Mr. Basketball, Adam Miller. He’s likely to be in the mix.
“We’re going to be that team with the bullseye on our back and everybody is going to be out there trying to beat us,” Underwood said.
North Carolina A&T finished last year winning five of its final six games and second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
There is no question where the Illini will place priority against NC A&T. Kameron Langley, the MEAC Preseason Player of the Year, is the centerpiece of an upperclass heavy club.
Aggies coach Will Jones said the challenge of facing Illinois is steep, but he’s also focused on establishing his team and a foothold for the future with a roster loaded with upperclassmen. NC A&T has 11 players on the roster who are juniors, seniors or graduate transfers.
“A mid-major plus. We’re going after really good high school players and going to the Big South gives us that opportunity,” Jones said. “We want to get good high school kids and transfers. We’ll have more Kam Langleys and Fred Clevelands and Tyrone Lyons, guys who will be with us for four years.”
–Field Level Media