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Get To Know A Marquette Basketball Opponent: #11 Illinois Fighting Illini

The first major test of the season for the Golden Eagles comes in the Gavitt Tip-Off games.

Belted Kingfisher
In 2020 Illinois Students voted to change their official mascot to the Belted Kingfisher. An election that the administration have largely ignored.
Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Name: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

What they’re really known as: Illinois

Location: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

Founded: As Illinois Industrial University in 1867, but took on its current moniker in 1885

Enrollment: A total of 56,000 students as of Fall 2021, 34,000 of which are undergrads.

Demographics: Breaks 53% male with just over 42% of the student body as white with the largest minority group being Asian. The school’s marketing materials seem to boast its recruitment of students from China and South Korea especially. As the clear and away largest school in the state, having a diverse student body is not unexpected. The majority of the student body is from the state of Illinois but over 20,000 students who attend are not residents…that being said most in that category are graduate students.

Nickname: Fighting Illini

Why “Fighting Illini”?: A name rife with controversy. The origin of the Illini name stems from the Illiniwek Confederation, which was a council of 13 Native American tribes along the Mississippi River Valley. The name was shortened to Illini when the school newspaper took on the name and it was largely associated with the school moving forward. The term “Fighting Illini” first appeared in 1911 in reference to the team’s effort in a game against Purdue and was adopted formally in the 10 years following. While the School claims the name no longer refers to the indigenous, it’s fairly baked in and unavoidably connected.

The original long-form term Illiniwek once held its name as the school’s mascot “Chief Illiniwek”, but the School has since moved on from the mascot as the NCAA deemed it “hostile or abusive” in 2005. In 2020, the Student Body voted to change the Mascot to a Belted Kingfisher (see the picture above) in their student elections but the administration has downplayed the results as informal.

Notable Alumni: There’s a long list of Notable Alumni, both in sports and other areas of study. 19 Olympians, 15 MLB players, 10 Nobel Prize winners, 16 Pulitzer Prize winners, 48 NBA players, including current players Kendrick Nunn and 2021 2nd draft round pick Ayo Dosunmu, Tony Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Fulham FC, and All Elite Wrestling. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, movie critic Roger Ebert, Sean Evans of Hot Ones, and actor Nick Offerman.

Last Season: 24-7 on route to a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but fell to in-state Catholic school rival Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32.

Current KenPom.com Ranking: #4

Current T-Rank Ranking: #5

Returning 2020-21 Stats Leaders

Points: Kofi Cockburn, 17.7 ppg
Rebounds: Kofi Cockburn, 9.5 rpg
Assists: Andre Curbelo, 4.2 apg

Current Stats Leaders

Points: Jacob Grandison, 17.5 ppg
Rebounds: Coleman Hawkins & Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, 10.0 rpg
Assists: Andre Curbelo, 7.0 apg

Bigs? On most nights, Kofi Cockburn is the guy to talk about as a starting 5 and legitimate all-Americanesque big man. But this night is not like other nights. After a brief flirtation with the NBA Draft, Kofi decided to return to Illinois but was ultimately hit with a three-game suspension. Turns out, he was apparently leaning so far towards staying in the draft in June that he sold some amount of his Illinois gear. Then he decided to return to the Illini, and thus he was still accountable to NCAA rules, and in June, he wasn’t allowed to sell gear. July? Different story, as that’s when the name, image, and likeness rights legislation kicked in. He will be serving his third game of that suspension when the Illini come to Fiserv.

In his stead, the Golden Eagles will be seeing some combination of Florida transfer Omar Payne along with sophomores Coleman Hawkins and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. Hawkins has been a standout early for the Illini, playing with 70% of Illinois’s minute through two games an also putting himself on the “not-at-all-too-early” KenPom Player of the Year rankings at 7th. Hawkins can play either the four or the five so even when Cockburn is back, he will have a role.

Omar Payne comes from Florida after not getting a ton of burn there. Payne’s job is primarily to play defense (primarily just protecting the rim) and clean up the glass. He doesn’t have a ton of weapons offensively but he’s big, strong, and can throw down a dunk when given the chance. Bosmans-Verdonk is 6’8” and 235 pounds and is technically in his third season with Illinois, but he’s only played in 16 games before this season. He’s averaging 10 rebounds a game while playing just 33 total minutes in two contests.

Shooters? Illinois didn’t shoot a ton of threes last year but did shoot efficiently at 37% as a team. That’s not paying off yet this year, as they’ve only hit 30% of their attempts. They do have a group of guys who can absolutely do that…they just have to prove it. Returners Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, and Jacob Grandison all have range, add in Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer who is a career 40% shooter on just under 300 attempts and a seemingly willing-to-shoot Coleman Hawkins (seven attempts so far this season), and all of a sudden you have a pretty deep core of guys who can let it fly.

Head Coach: Brad Underwood is now in his fifth season at the helm of the Illini and is coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance under his tutelage. He’s a career 123-83 with a 71-56 record at Illinois.

What To Watch For: Marquette Golden Eagles won’t be getting Illinois at their full power as Cockburn will be out, but they will be certainly the best test Illinois has seen this season and have the tools to really pressure the Illini.

Despite being the #14 offense in the country thus far per KenPom, the Illini are horrendous at securing the basketball, averaging 22.3 turnovers per game and rank alllll the way down at #259 in non-steal turnovers. This is the perfect opportunity for Shaka Smart’s defensive identity to start to show its teeth. Pressuring the ball and forcing your way into more possessions and opportunities will be key in the pursuit of an upset win.

Crashing the glass on the defensive end of the floor will also be vital to success. As a team, the Illini are fairly pedestrian in terms of their shooting at the moment despite all the depth they have. But what they lack in jump shooting they more than makeup for on the offensive glass. Ranking #2 in the country so far with an eye-popping offensive rebounding rate of an 50%, the Illini create offensive opportunities that they lose in turnovers by extending possessions and winning balls back in the paint. And again, they’re doing this WITHOUT Kofi Cockburn. It will be vital for players like Kur Kuath, Olivier-Maxence Prosper, Oso Ighodaro, and Justin Lewis to secure the ball and not let the Illini get multiple opportunities on offensive possessions.

Marquette is going to need to shoot better, especially from three where they are a staggeringly bad 26% from deep, in order to secure the victory. Heck, since they’re facing KenPom’s #1 defense in the country, MU needs to do literally everything better on offense. They can certainly give themselves a chance by forcing Illinois into turning the ball over and eliminating second-chance points. It may hurt the Golden Eagles to slow down the transition offense and crash the glass, as they currently play with the fourth shortest average possession length in the country, but slowing down the breakout to crash the glass will keep the Illinois offensive output at a far more manageable rate.

All-Time Series: Illinois leads 9-5. The last time these two programs met was in 1993 when Marquette beat the #16 ranked Illini 74-64. The series between these two dates back to 1940 when Illinois won five straight to start but things have since swung in MU’s direction as they have won four of the last five.

The Gavitt Tipoff Games: The Gavitt Tipoff Games are an annual series of games between the Big 10 and Big East dating back to 2015 and is named after Hall of Famer and founder of the Big East Dave Gavitt. Last season, the games were split 4-4 between the conferences.