Illinois men’s basketball preseason takeaways: Hawkins, defense impress ahead of regular season


Ryan Ash

Forward Coleman Hawkins dribbles the ball during the game against St. Francis Oct. 23. Illinois defense is turning out to be impressive ahead the regular season.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, I shared three questions that needed to be answered before evaluating the 2021-2022 Illinois men’s basketball team. Some answers have appeared but even more questions have emerged.

The Illini finished their two-game preseason on Friday with a 94-79 victory against Indiana University of Pennsylvania. 

The latter exhibition revealed more about the team than the first, mainly the importance of junior Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn’s recent suspension for violating now defunct NIL rules surprised many who watched NCAA officials push player empowerment in the offseason. 

Cockburn’s absence will be felt on both sides of the ball, and for now, it answers one of the biggest questions I had coming into the season: the big man rotation.

Hawkins should start at power forward 

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At Illinois’ basketball’s media day, head coach Brad Underwood said we would likely see Cockburn and junior transfer Omar Payne on the floor at the same time. In two preseason games, that happened very rarely. 

Neither Payne or Cockburn has shown the ability to shoot from outside the paint, severely limiting the matchups where they could be used simultaneously. Meanwhile, sophomore Coleman Hawkins has done just that.

Hawkins made four of 10 attempts from 3-point range in two exhibitions. He also grabbed 14 rebounds. So far, he has proven to be the best fit next to Cockburn. A shooting touch like his is hard to come by at 6 feet, 10 inches. 

With Hawkins on the floor, the Illini played a four-man-out strategy that is reminiscent of the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic teams of the late aughts.

Without Cockburn for three games, that is a moot point. Teams won’t double or triple-team Payne in the post like they do Cockburn. This may be a blessing in disguise. 

Payne attempted just four field goals in the first game and none in the second. Three games in the starting lineup should give him time to build confidence and ultimately bolster the Illini’s bench. It will also force them to learn to score without Cockburn drawing all the attention.

When Cockburn returns, however, I expect to see the duo of Cockburn and Hawkins in the starting lineup nightly.

Curbelo’s (lack of) shooting won’t be a problem.

Sophomore Andre Curbelo attempted just four 3-pointers in the preseason. He made only one. But the real story was the 15 turnovers he committed in two games. 

Despite his struggles, Underwood isn’t worried about Curbelo’s playmaking, as he’s seen him play well before. 

I wouldn’t worry, either. Curbelo’s prowess as a playmaker is well documented. He was recently named a top-three guard in the nation by The Athletic’s CJ Moore, in addition to being added to the preseason Bob Cousy Award watch list. 

If Curbelo was this team’s only playmaker, his shooting would worry me, but in the preseason, we saw several players sharing the initiator role with him. This included seniors Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and graduate student Austin Hutcherson.

This parallels what we’ve heard from players and coaches: The Illini are playing positionless basketball. Opponents won’t be able to stall the Illini offense by simply backing off Curbelo because others have the green light to initiate as well. 

The sample size on Curbelo’s shooting is still small, but even without improvement, the Illini are constructed well enough to make up for his weakness.

Defense should be this team’s hallmark

The Illini recorded a staggering 23 steals and 11 blocks in the preseason. They would have had even more steals if not for Frazier’s injury early in the first half against IUP.

As the unofficial leader of the defense, Frazier recorded six steals in the first exhibition. The Big Ten All-Defensive team member may miss time in the early season due to the injury he sustained. 

Depending on Frazier and Williams’ injury timelines, the Illini may be missing three of their best defenders to start the season. Regardless, they still have defensive talent across the board.

Curbelo recorded four steals and two blocks in the preseason. Payne recorded two blocks of his own. Both are known as legitimate defenders, but there are others with potential as well.

Underwood has said freshman RJ Melendez has a chance to be a lockdown defender. Melendez used his length to grab two steals across two games and showed the ability to stick with ball handlers on the perimeter.

Graduate student Jacob Grandison, along with Hawkins and freshman Luke Goode, add even more length. Though none are considered “lockdown” defenders, they all possess the versatility needed to guard several positions. This will make it much easier for Underwood to adjust to injuries early on.



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