No. 19 Illinois travels to Las Vegas for semifinal showdown against No. 8 UCLA in Continental Tire Main Event

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Sydney Laput

The Illinois men’s basketball team huddles on the court during the game against Kansas City on Nov. 11.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

After three consecutive blowout victories, No. 19 Illinois men’s basketball is heading to Las Vegas for a Friday night showdown with No. 8 UCLA. The Illini are competing in the Continental Tire Main Event, and if the team can secure a victory against the Bruins they’ll be back in action on Sunday to play the winner of No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 16 Virginia.

The event will serve as the first major test for Illinois this season. The Illini have only played against lower-tier teams this early on and they’ll soon gain experience playing with other ranked opponents for the first time since the secret scrimmage against Kansas in the preseason.

“I think you’ve got four top-20 teams,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “You’ve got teams that are picked to win their conference, you’ve got teams that are expected to be in Final Four contention and our opponent on Friday is one of those. UCLA is very good and Mick (Cronin) does an outstanding job.”

While Illinois has certainly started the 2022–23 season strong, averaging 92 points across its first three games, UCLA will come as a serious challenge for the squad. The Bruins are led by dynamic guard Tyger Campbell who is averaging 14.3 points and 4.3 assists per game. With freshman guard Skyy Clark expected to start at point guard, guarding Campbell will be a solid test for the young Illini.

Friday will also see the two teams face off for the first time since 1997 when Illinois was defeated 74-69 by a No. 9 UCLA team. Historically, the Illini trail in the all-time series 6-3 against the Bruins and will be entering the semifinal with a fairly inexperienced roster. Illinois has five freshman players who are yet to take the court against a ranked opponent.

Particularly against a top-10 team, Underwood will be relying on his experienced players to help pave the way to victory, all while showing the younger players how to compete against top-tier college opposition. A player to watch for Illinois is undoubtedly senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who is coming off a career-high 30-point performance against Monmouth. Shannon ranks 18th in all of the NCAA in terms of scoring, while also ranking third in free throws. The senior guard’s ability and experience will likely prove vital to the Illini’s success over the course of the weekend.

“There’s no doubt that Coleman has been in a lot of these games,” Underwood said. “RJ was very successful in the NCAA tournament game, Terrence and Matt have obviously seen a lot of those moments. In one sense it’s another game, but in another sense we’re gonna put some guys out there where it’s their first time in a real game against a Final Four-caliber team. Our veterans have to lead them, they have to guide them and in those situations that come up in a game we’ve got to have composure and poise.”

A Friday night victory would see Illinois move on to the Sunday game, where it will play either No. 5 Baylor or No. 16 Virginia. Regardless of the results, the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas is going to show what this Illini team is truly made of.

“(I’m) really looking forward to finding out where we are,” Underwood said. “We had our secret scrimmage against a really high quality opponent and that gave us some confidence, I hope, to know that we belong and we’re in the right event.”

 

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