Undermanned Illinois set to battle Notre Dame in Big Ten/ACC challenge


Ryan Ash

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood walks down the court during the team’s game against St. Francis (Ill.) on Oct. 23. The Illini will be missing several key players against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Monday night.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

No. 14 Illinois will host Notre Dame in the 23rd annual Big Ten/ACC challenge Monday night at State Farm Center. The Illini continue to face obstacles this season, from injuries to suspensions and now influenza.

Graduate student Jacob Grandison missed the last game with the flu, and sophomore Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk has also contracted the virus. Neither will play on Monday. Freshman Brandin Podziemski is expected to play against Notre Dame after recovering from a recent bout with the flu.

“We did not practice yesterday because of everything that we have going on and going around,” Underwood said. “I have never in my 35 years not practiced because of that. So yes, we’re all in a tough spot.”

Senior Trent Frazier and sophomore Andre Curbelo are also dealing with injury, and Underwood is not optimistic about either playing on Monday. The Illini will for the second time likely start a lineup consisting of senior Da’Monte Williams, graduate transfer Alfonso Plummer, graduate student Austin Hutcherson, sophomore Coleman Hawkins and junior Kofi Cockburn.

Cockburn scored a career-high 38 points on Saturday against UT Rio Grande Valley. If he qualified for the leaderboards, his 26.3 points per game would be the highest mark in the nation. In three games back, Cockburn has lived up to his Preseason All-American expectations.

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    The Illini, however, have not lived up their expectations as a team. After dropping three spots in the AP polls last week, they will likely drop even farther this week after struggling against the Cincinnati Bearcats in a 20-point loss. 

    “We played extremely, well, soft the other night,” Underwood said of the team’s 94-85 win over UTRGV. “As soft as any team in the history of my career has ever played.”

    Underwood expects his players to play more physical, intense basketball against Notre Dame, but he specifically wants to see more guys fighting for rebounds and chasing loose balls. He thinks the lack of rebounding led to the team’s poor transition defense against UT Rio Grande Valley.

    “Hutch is a really good offensive rebounder, and he didn’t go very hard the other night,” Underwood said. “We can’t be reliant upon Kofi to get every rebound. I thought early in the year Jake was extremely effective. … We’ve got to get Coleman back in those chasing balls things — that’s where he was so active, drew so many fouls on people — early in the year.”

    The Illini have continued to out-rebound their opponents this season, though only doing so by five rebounds on Friday. They will have a much harder time rebounding on Monday against Notre Dame’s starting center and ACC rebound per game leader senior Nate Laszewski. Laszewski is averaging 10.4 rebounds to go along with 7.4 points per game.

    Underwood also mentioned Notre Dame freshman Blake Wesley, who scored 21 points in his collegiate debut earlier this season.

    “An athletic, shotmaking, very talented player, and Mike (Brey) does a great job moving around,” Underwood said. “He plays a lot of different positions. and he gives them tremendous punch off the bench. … We’ll be challenged in our defensive principles in some of the actions that they run. And we’ve got to step up and obviously play better than we did the other night against Rio Grande Valley.”

    The Illini go into Monday on an eight-game home winning streak, but they have lost three straight to the Fighting Irish, including their 2018 Big Ten/ACC matchup, which was played in South Bend. Illinois is 27-15 against Notre Dame overall.

    The Illini are just 9-13 in Big Ten/ACC challenge games.



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