Scouting Illinois: Top 10 Fighting Illini enter Columbia, seek revenge

The Tigers defeated the Fighting Illini in the Braggin’ Rights game the last two years in St. Louis. Now with Illinois ranked at No. 6, the annual showdown shifts to Columbia.

In 1993, an unranked Missouri men’s basketball team sparked one of its best seasons ever with a triple overtime 108-107 victory over No. 19 Illinois in St. Louis.

The win was part of a 28-4 season where the Tigers made it to the Elite Eight in the 1994 NCAA Tournament.

Twenty-seven years later, the Tigers can make a similar statement against the Fighting Illini. Illinois is fresh off a win against No. 10 Duke and has established itself as a national title contender in the opening weeks of this season.

The Maneater spoke with Daily Illini Sports staff writer Brandon Simberg for a closer look at the Illini.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity purposes

The Maneater: In the context of the rest of the season, how much does the Braggin’ Rights game matter to Illinois?

Brandon Simberg, staff writer for The Daily Illini: Illinois has a really tough schedule. They played top 10 teams non-conference in Baylor and Duke, and the Big Ten this year is loaded with Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State all being top 10 teams. There's seven ranked Big Ten teams, so in terms of opponent strength, Missouri isn't up there. But I think this game, from an emotional standpoint, means a lot. They play every year, and they made an emphasis to get this game played this year, even in the pandemic. And last year, Missouri upset Illinois, so a lot of the guys on Illinois want to get their revenge, especially some of the seniors who have that sour taste in their mouth from last year. I think this game is important to Illinois, for sure.

TM: Speaking of last year's game, Mizzou beat Illinois by seven. Illinois has a lot of players coming back, like Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. How has this team changed from last year from being unranked to now being ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25 Poll?

BS: Bringing all those guys back helps them solidify themselves as a top 25 team. Dosunmu is one of the best players in the country, but they also have a pretty good freshman class. They start a guard, Adam Miller, who actually played high school with Ayo Dosunmu, and he's been a pretty steady shooter throughout the year. They have another freshman guard in Andre Curbelo, who has provided a bench spark. When they lost to Missouri last year, that was a low point of their season. I think they lost three or four games, but toward the end of the year Illinois was picking it up, and they finished fourth in the Big Ten. So the continuity of having all those guys back and some top 50 freshmen have made them this elite team.

TM: Dosunmu was already an All-American going into this year, but he's exceeded the hype of the preseason. Why is Ayo Dosunmu such a special player?

BS: Dosunmu is just a really good basketball player. He knows how to play. He's smart. He can play a little bit of point guard when you need him to, but he can also play off the ball. He's been rebounding really well for his size this year, so that's an improvement. I think his biggest leap has been his three point shooting. Last year, he was only 29.5% from deep, and this year, he's up to 42%. So now teams [facing] ball screens can't go under him. You have to play him higher up, and then if you're pressuring him, he has the handle and speed to go by you, so you'll feel annoyed. He's just a guy you can count on for 20 points a game, a couple rebounds and a couple assists.

TM: With Kofi Cockburn, he is going to be one of the most talented big men that Missouri has to face like this year. How does his presence on the court impact the game?

BS: He didn't actually start playing basketball until he was in high school, so he's not super skilled. He's not like a Luka Garza that's going to hit post fadeaways and all these amazing post hooks. But Cockburn, as you can see from his size, he's just a big dude, so he's a double-double threat every night because he's so big and he's gonna grab rebounds. When other teams drive in the paint, he can just put his arms up and stand there and be a presence, so he's been a good rim protector on defense. And then offensively, he's a guy that’s good at setting picks and rolling to the basket and finishing off dump-offs and lobs.

TM: You mentioned the two top 50 freshmen, Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. This is the best recruiting class that coach Brad Underwood has had since arriving in Champaign. How have the two freshmen been filling into the system thus far?

BS: Miller fits really well with what Illinois wants to do because they love to play a three- guard system, so adding two guards in Miller and Curbelo has really helped. Miller starts, and he’ll play with Dosunmu and Frazier, and he's the perfect guy for when Dosunmu drives. He can kick out to Miller. Miller has got a pure stroke, and he can hit shots. He's been up and down so far. He set the scoring record for an Illinois debut in their opener against North Carolina A&T with 28. But then he tailed off and missed 10 straight threes in their third and fourth games. But [Tuesday] night against Duke he hit three threes in the first half, so when he's on, he's been really impactful. Curbelo is your more traditional point guard — he can run the offense; get other guys involved, especially when Dosunmu sits. He's the guy that you can hand the keys the offense to and he makes things happen.

TM: Curbelo had one of his better games Tuesday against Duke. What stood out to you in how he handled the offense, especially against a really good team like Duke?

BS: I think Dosumnu is a great player, but he doesn't create for others the way that Curbelo does. Curbelo has such a knack for using his ball-handling skills to get into the paint, and then he can manipulate bigs with his passing. When he sees a big in front of him and he has either Cockburn or Bezhanishvili behind him, he's really smart at either going up for the layup or dumping off. Curbelo needs to limit his turnovers. He had five [Tuesday] night, but when he gets into the paint, and he keeps the dribble alive, he's really manipulative and can just get guys open or finish floaters and runners. I've been high on Curbelo since he committed, and he was okay in their first three games against lower opponents, but then against Baylor and Duke, he showed the flashes. I'm really excited about him. If he can stay for years, he could be one of the top assists guys [of all time] by the time he's a senior.

TM: You mentioned the games against some lower opponents. Illinois had a close call against Ohio at home a couple weeks back where Dosunmu had to hit free throws at the end to avoid the upset, then they lost last week against Baylor by double digits in a bigger game. What went wrong in both of those games?

BS: I think against Ohio they just kind of came out flat out. Being in the building, the Ohio bench was really, really active in the first half and created a lot of energy. Illinois didn't have that energy, and defensively, they got killed on pick and roll scenarios. Ohio's guard, Jason Preston, went for 31 points, eight rebounds and five assists, so Preston was able to just get a high pick and roll, manipulate Cockburn and Ohio hit some threes. They were able to hit big shots, which, when you're going for an upset, that's what you need. Then the Baylor game: For the first 30 minutes, they were right there with Baylor. Baylor just went on a run the second half where they out-hustled Illinois. They got loose balls, they got rebounds, they forced turnovers. I think Illinois lost the game in that four-minute stretch, but I don't think Illinois was too upset about that. If you watch Baylor play, that's a top two team in the country, so they just kind of let it get away from them in a four minute stretch.

TM: When Illinois is playing their best basketball, what are they doing on both ends of the court?

BS: Offensively, this is gonna sound obvious, but they're making threes. They play three guards and Da’Monte Williams at the power forward spot who can make threes. They're getting out in transition, they're playing fast; Dosunmu is scoring at the rim and on fast breaks, or if he's not, he's kicking out to shooters and guys like Miller and Frazier, who are knocking down threes. Then defensively, they like to play a hard-nosed style of defense. Dosunmu and Frazier are getting up in the guards and pressuring them and creating turnovers. They’re rebounding the ball well, and Cockburn and Bezhanishvili aren't boxing out, yet they're grabbing the rebounds and going. They can play in the half court, but they excel playing in transition, largely because Dosunmu is a great transition player.

TM: What is your final score prediction for Saturday?

BS: It's a rivalry game and I actually think this is a tough spot for Illinois. This will be their third straight game not at home. They start Big Ten play on Dec. 15 against a solid Minnesota team and maybe they let down after the win. I think it's going to be a close, competitive game, but I'll take Illinois, 74-69.

Edited by Jack Soble |

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