Column | Win at Minnesota shows Illinois men’s basketball belongs among the nation’s top 25 teams

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Trent Frazier plays defense during the first half of Illinois’ 76-53 win over Minnesota on Tuesday night in Minneapolis. The Illini are now 10-3 and sit atop the Big Ten standings, but they are on the outside looking in on the AP Top 25.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

With 12 days since they last played and very little time to practice in between, the Illini went to Minneapolis and beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 76-53, on Tuesday night. The win put into question their six-week absence from the Associated Press Top-25 poll. 

The Illini had 10 players test positive for COVID-19 last week, resulting in the cancellation of a game scheduled against Florida A&M on Dec. 29. The game against Minnesota was originally scheduled to be played on Sunday.

“I had no idea what our conditioning would be like with 10 positives, and guys out and the three-day NCAA break,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “We have this saying ‘three weeks to get in great shape, three days to get out.’ So, we monitored that pretty close.”

The 23-point victory is the third blowout win for Illinois in three games since it lost to Arizona by four points in early December. Prior to that, the Illini had won five straight. 

Junior Kofi Cockburn continued his Player of the Year campaign, notching 29 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two steals in just 24 minutes. He went 9-11 from the free-throw line.

“You know I’m still old school. You guys know that the closer you get to the basket, the better chance it has to go in,” Underwood said. “When we can throw it in there to the big fella, we’re going to do that and I’ll take those numbers every night.”

It was a low-scoring affair for everyone not named Kofi Cockburn. Minnesota’s top scorers, Eric Curry and Jamison Battle, put up just 10 points each. Illini grade students Jacob Grandison and Alfonso Plummer added 11 and 10 points, respectively. Plummer had scored at least 19 points in eight straight games.

But the box score doesn’t tell the entire story. The Illini looked dominant, perfectly comfortable taking what the defense gave them, and more often than not that was a bucket inside. Minnesota was reluctant to leave shooters open as the Illini are shooting 40% from three. 

The ability to adjust to a defense’s game plan is crucial for elite teams and that’s exactly what the Illini are. Their only losses have come to then-No. 11 Arizona, Cincinnati and Marquette. The loss to Cincinnati dropped the Illini out of the top 25, and the Bearcats are now 10-4. Marquette beat No. 16 Providence, which had only one loss heading into the contest, by 32 points. Point is those are three tough teams.

The Illini defense looked as good as it has all season, maybe even better. It held Minnesota to just 35% shooting from the field and 20% from behind the arc. They did so by keying in on the Golden Gophers’ top scorers this season while letting others try to beat them.

“He’s (Payton Willis) at the top of the scouting report. … He and (Jamison) Battle were two guys we wanted to focus in on. It was an elite challenge to try and guard both of them,” Underwood said. “We were OK with Curry and Daniels shooting jump shots out there all night. As long as it wasn’t those two, we felt pretty comfortable with that.”

The Illini may be the most underrated team in the country. They’ve been out of the national spotlight for over a month now, but they’re playing their best basketball of the season. They’ve got only conference games remaining, and they’ll face off with No. 3 Purdue in just two weeks. Underwood isn’t getting ahead of himself.

“We played well against Missouri, and we did some things really well tonight, but we gotta turn around and play again in 36 hours,” Underwood said. “I think it’s just a matter of one game at a time, don’t get too far ahead, don’t get too high, don’t get too low and let’s just go out and keep trying to get better.”

 

@JonesChristianT

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