The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

End-of-November duel with Western Illinois awaits Illinois men’s basketball

Redshirt+Freshman+Guard+Niccolo+Moretti+during+the+first+half+Illinois+exhibition+match+against+Ottawa+on+Oct.+20.+The+first+half+of+the+game+ended+in+a+score+of+59+for+Illinois+and+30+for+Ottawa.
James Hoeck
Redshirt Freshman Guard Niccolo Moretti during the first half Illinois exhibition match against Ottawa on Oct. 20. The first half of the game ended in a score of 59 for Illinois and 30 for Ottawa.

Friday night marks the end of a month-long home stand for Illinois men’s basketball, who went 4-1 during that span. The lone loss was to No. 4 Marquette and seemingly was the reason why Illinois dropped out of the AP’s top 25 poll. The Illini will be opposite the Western Illinois Leathernecks before heading on the road for just over three weeks. Coincidentally, the two programs have a lot of overlap in their opening schedules, which may offer insight into how Illinois stacks up against its western counterpart. 

Through five games, both Illinois and Western Illinois have faced Southern and Valparaiso. The Illini took victory in both games and won by an average of 25.5 points, while the Leathernecks split the slate. They secured an 88-80 victory over Southern at home but fell 73-66 to Valparaiso on the road. 

Another element of this matchup that favors the Illini is the all-time record. All five of their past meetings were held in Champaign and ended with the home squad on top. They played each other for three consecutive years from 2001-03 but haven’t met since.

The status of senior forward Coleman Hawkins is still unknown, with the California native already missing two games due to a reaggravating day-to-day injury. However, if there’s one thing those two games have shown, it’s that redshirt junior forward Dain Dainja has no issue filling in. Dainja was the team’s second-leading scorer in both games and was incredibly efficient in the process. His 16-point outing against Valparaiso was accomplished by making eight of 10 shots while also reeling in seven rebounds and two blocks. Even when he saw extremely limited second-half action against Southern, he still had 10 of Illinois’ first 12 points to combat an otherwise slow start. 

Hawkins isn’t the only Illini whose status is a mystery, as redshirt freshman guard Niccolo Moretti had an early exit due to injury in Illinois’ most recent outing. Moretti was in the midst of a career night as Illinois’ first man off the bench. In 13 minutes, he totaled career-highs in rebounds (3) and assists (3) while also going a perfect 2-2 from the floor.

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    The emergence of Moretti hasn’t gone unnoticed by fellow Illinois players, and fifth-year guard Terrence Shannon Jr. explained that it showed in practice just as much as it has on the court.

    “Man, Nico’s been killing it in practice,” Shannon said. “He’s been having great weeks of practice, dominating … being a floor general. Just being a great pure point guard. As I can see in the last two games that he played in, he showcased that. That’s what he does.”

    Head coach Brad Underwood described Moretti’s talent as a pure point guard as having a positive effect on the entire team. 

    “They feed off of it,” Underwood said. “There’s a positivity when he’s got the ball, not that there’s not with other guys, but all of a sudden our pace picks up. They’re running harder … they know if they run, he’s gonna pitch that thing ahead. He just makes plays that are the right plays.”

     

    @blountco21

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    About the Contributors
    Conor Blount, Assistant Sports Editor
    My name is Conor Blount. I’m a junior in aerospace engineering with a minor in computer science. I joined The Daily Illini in the summer of 2022 as a beat writer for the sports section and am now one of three assistant sports editors. My first beat was women’s tennis before I moved to women’s basketball in the spring. I also had the pleasure of covering several former Illini at the 2023 NFL draft and NBA summer league. If you have any questions, I can be reached at the email below.
    James Hoeck, Photo Editor
    Heyo! I am James Hoeck, a third-year undergraduate student in photography with a minor in media. I have been a part of Illini Media for two years, starting back in fall 2021. I hold the position of Photo Editor here at The Daily Illini. I also work as Photo Editor for Illini Media’s Illio Yearbook. There is a good chance you will see me out and about on campus taking photos for my personal work or for The DI and/or Illio! If you want to check out more of my work, visit my socials linked below.
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