Amid coronavirus concerns, Illinois prepares for Thanksgiving MTE

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Photo Courtesy of FightingIllini Athletics

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn goes up for a layup in practice on Nov. 20. The Illini start their season Wednesday against North Carolina A&T.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

The Illini are finally prepping for another game — 255 days after having their final practice of the season at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

The long offseason is over and among much uncertainty, there will be basketball games played this week at the State Farm Center. Fans will not be back in the stadium for Illinois’ four-team MTE.

This fall, Illinois has had 32 official team practices. Brad Underwood’s group spent that time learning the offense and defensive schemes and scrimmaging against each other. No teams were allowed to participate in scrimmages or exhibition games against other teams, so lining up against five guys in different colored jerseys will be a welcomed sight for the Illini.

“Not being able to have preseason or exhibition games, obviously we’re all competitive but it kind of gets boring getting after each other,” senior guard Trent Frazier said. “Being able to go against somebody with a different school name and different colored jersey, we’re very excited. Especially after all the work we put in this preseason.”

The MTE certainly is not a loaded field. Wednesday’s opponent North Carolina A&T is No. 311 in the Ken Pom preseason rankings. The Illini played the Aggies last season, defeating them 95-64. Kofi Cockburn led the way with 26 points while Ayo Dosunmu chipped in 19. Still, Underwood is not overlooking the Aggies.

“This is a very very good basketball team,” Underwood said. “They have a high-major backcourt, in my opinion. They’re all veterans. Their point guard is an all-league guy, who led the country in assists.”

Thursday’s opponent, Chicago State, was not the original team scheduled for the MTE. After COVID-19 concerns in Wright State’s program, the Rowdy Raiders backed out. Chicago State is a combined 7-59 over the last two seasons. The Cougars are No. 354 in the Ken Pom preseason rankings.

Of all the games, Friday’s matchup against Ohio will be the Illini’s toughest test. The Bobcats went only 17-14 last season, but they return All-MAC second-team guard Jason Preston. Preston was the only player in the country last season who averaged over 16 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game. Despite being a heavy favorite in all three games, Underwood is looking forward to learning about where his team’s weaknesses lie.

“I’m really trying to figure out what our weaknesses are,” Underwood said. “I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. Every team’s got weaknesses and we haven’t played anybody to be exposed yet. And we see a certain ball-screen coverage or this or that everyday, and you want to see what teams do to counteract what you do. And that’s really how you figure out what you have to work on.”

Testing protocols will be strict for the opposing teams. Underwood said all three teams got tested this morning and he believes that all players involved tested negative. Teams will then test every day they are in Champaign.

While the Illini have no players out with COVID-19, they still won’t be at full strength. Underwood said junior transfer guard Austin Hutcherson is out with a back injury and redshirt freshman forward Benjamin Boss-Verdonk is out with a foot injury.

Illinois will start the season on Wednesday at 1 p.m. central time against North Carolina A&T. On Thanksgiving, they’ll play Chicago State at 11 a.m. Friday’s game against Ohio is scheduled for noon. All games can be watched on the Big Ten Network.

@BrandonSimberg