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Get To Know A Marquette Basketball Opponent: #23 Illinois

The Golden Eagles and the Illini clash in the Gavitt Tipoff Games for the second time since Shaka Smart took the MU job.

A Belted Kingfisher perched on a tree stump in a wetland at the South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas
A belted kingfisher, the unofficial mascot of the University of Illinois.
photo by: Jon G. Fuller/VW Pics/ Universal Images Group via etty Images

Name: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Location: Urbana, Illinois, and also Champaign, Illinois

Wait, what? They’re separate cites, but they border each other and the campus is somewhat split between them. Undergraduate admissions is in Urbana, but graduate student admissions is in Champaign, for example. For what it’s worth to you, the game is going to be played in Champaign.

Founded: 1867, thanks to the Morrill Land-Grant Act, but they didn’t start classes until March of 1868. School calendars were different then.

I’m guessing a school that old didn’t start as University of Illinois. You are correct! It was originally “Illinois Industrial University,” which is slightly weird because school president John Milton Gregory wanted a liberal arts school while the idea behind the project from Illinois lawmakers was clearly focused on whatever “industrial education” qualified as in the post-Civil War era. Ultimately both sides won, as the university was doing enough industrial stuff and enough liberal arts stuff that the name was changed to University of Illinois in 1885.

Wait, no location part? That didn’t come until 1977. The school had opened up satellite campuses in Chicago, and since most of the university’s buildings are in Urbana, people started referring to campus as “in Urbana-Champaign.” They officially changed the name in ‘77.

Isn’t saying “Urbana-Champaign” backwards? Yeah, most people refer to the metroplex of the two cities using the alphabetical order. But again, most of the campus buildings are addressed in Urbana, so they get the priority. I don’t think anyone’s going to yell at you if you say “U of I at Champaign-Urbana” but officially, that’s not the name of the school.

Enrollment: The official number for Fall 2023 is 56,403, with 34,518 registered as undergraduates.

Nickname: Fighting Illini

Why “Fighting Illini”? This appears to be the student newspaper’s fault. They changed their name from The Student to The Illini in 1874. Ostensibly, that can be seen as paying tribute to the Illiniwek Confederation, which was a council of 13 Native American tribes along the Mississippi River Valley. First mention of Illini relative to the athletic teams dates as far back as 1907, although it appears to be used to describe members of campus than anything else. Fighting Illini pops up in 1911, although not as a nickname but just a description of the basketball team’s play against Purdue. The beginning of World War I seems to have proliferated the phrase as students went overseas to fight, and the construction of Memorial Stadium in the 1920s used the phrase regularly.

While the original connection of the word Illini to campus may come in relatively gentle word association between the native people in the area and the formation of the school in the area, the fact of the matter is that the school launched itself 100% into Native American imagery as mascot in the 1920s. Chief Illiniwek made his first war dance performance at halftime of a football game in 1926, and that became a regular feature from there on out. Over the years, opposition to an imaginary Native chief as a mascot grew, for obvious reasons. By April 2000, the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, the current descendents of the Illiniwek Confederation after resettlement by the federal government, was officially against the use of the mascot. The NCAA officially banned “hostile and abusive” nicknames in August of 2005, and the university fought the change through the following school year. Chief Illiniwek continued to perform all the way through the 2006-07 school year before the board of trustees officially declared the mascot’s retirement.

But the name Fighting Illini continues, because the NCAA can’t really do anything about a phrasing that stems more from the name of the state that the school is in. We can have a conversation about the fact that the word “Illinois” comes from the French explorers modifying the name that the Native Americans in the area used for themselves in the first place, but that’s why they’re still the Fighting Illini.

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. That process continues to this day, with an actual Kingfisher mascot suit existing and debuting on campus during move in this past August.

Notable Alumni: 10 Nobel Prize winners, including Jack Kilby, the inventor of the integrated circuit; Michael Krasny, founder of CDW; 15 Pulitzer Prize winners, including legendary film critic Roger Ebert; actor Alan Ruck, best known as Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Warren Ambrose, considered to be one of the fathers of modern geometry; C.E. Woolman, founder of Delta Air Lines; architect Max Abramovitz, who designed both the United Nations building in New York and the arena that Tuesday’s basketball game will be played in; Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, co-founders of YouTube; Tony Award winning actress Lynne Thigpen, who still might be best known as The Chief on Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?; Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.; Will Leitch, founder of Deadspin, back when it was good; Abe Saperstein, creator of the Harlem Globetrotters; Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the United States Senate; Bruce Artwick, creator of Microsoft Flight Simulator; actor Jerry Orbach, best known as Detective Briscoe on Law & Order; William F. Baker, the structural engineer of Burj Khalifa in Dubai; civil rights leader Jesse Jackson; Ed Boon, creator of Mortal Kombat; Academy Award winning director Ang Lee; Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Tony Khan, Shahid’s son and President of All Elite Wrestling; James Brady, former White House Press Secretary and handgun control advocate after he was shot during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan; Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal; Russel Simmons, co-founder of Yelp!; W. Dudley Johnson, the father of coronary artery bypass surgery; advice columnist Dan Savage; author Dave Eggers; Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine; Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, assigned to the 4077th MASH unit during the Korean War; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; professional gambler and Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer; three-time Emmy Award winner Barbara Bain; archeologist Donald Johanson, who discovered the remains of Lucy, the oldest known hominid; actor Nick Offerman, perhaps best known as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation; and finally, Fred Goetz, a suspected participant in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Last Season: 20-13, with an 11-9 record in the Big Ten, qualified for the NCAA tournament as an at-large candidate with a #9 seed before losing to Arkansas in the first round.

Final 2022-23 Ranking: #35

Final 2022-23 T-Rank Ranking: #50

Preseason Poll: The Big Ten didn’t release one, or at least one that included a predicted order of finish for the teams in the league. Rude. CBS Sports’ panel of experts picked the Illini to finish third.

Current Ranking: #25

Current T-Rank Ranking: #35

Current Record: 2-0, with two home wins over Eastern Illinois and Oakland.

Returning Stat Leaders

Points: Terrence Shannon, 17.2 ppg
Rebounds: Coleman Hawkins, 6.3 rpg
Assists: Coleman Hawkins, 3.0 apg

Current Stat Leaders

Points: Terrence Shannon, 15.5 ppg
Rebounds: Amani Hansberry, 8.0 rpg
Assists: Coleman Hawkins, 3.5 apg

A Statistical Note: Freshman Amani Hansberry gathered up eight rebounds in 14 minutes in the opener against Eastern Illinois, and then did not play in the game against Oakland. Amongst guys who played in both games, Dain Dainja and Coleman Hawkins are both averaging 6.5 rebounds per game.

Bigs? This is where we get into some fun. Okay, fun for certain values of fun. Coleman Hawkins is the tallest guy on the team at 6’10”. He weighs 200 pounds, led the team in assists last year and through two games, is averaging more assists than he did last year. He’s also, by way of height, their starting center, as Illinois has started three guys who stand 6’6” and another who stands 6’8”. I admit that I have not watched either Illinois game nor much of the Illini last season, but it’s possible that 6’8”, 220 pound Quincy Guerrier (who was at Oregon last year, and Syracuse before that) is operating as the rim protector more than Hawkins is... but Illinois themselves lists Guerrier as a guard/forward 6’9”, 270 pound forward/center Dain Dainja comes off the bench for Illinois for between 10 and 20 minutes a night so far this season. The aforementioned Amani Hansberry is listed at 6’8” and 240 pounds, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be in the rotation against the Golden Eagles after not playing on Friday night in an 11 point Illinois victory.

Shooters? Terrence Shannon, Illinois’ lone rep on the preseason all-Big Ten team (yes, they announced a list of good basketball players but not a team poll, don’t ask me, ask Tony Petitti, I’m sure he has lots of free time right now) is shooting 5-for-13 to open the season, a very great 38.5%. He knocked in just 32% of his threes last season, but was a 35% long range shooter in his three seasons at Texas Tech. Luke Goode is a career 39% shooter for the Illini in 40 appearances, and he’s 3-for-7 (43%) off the bench this season. Freshman guard Dra Gibbs Lawhorn is 2-for-6 so far this year, Marcus Domask is a career 35% three-point shooter who is having a cold start to this season, and Quincy Guerrier was a 34% shooter at Oregon, although he’s just 1-for-6 to start 2023-24. Amani Hansberry went 1-for-2 in his debut against Eastern Illinois, so if he plays against Marquette, that’s something to watch.

Head Coach: Brad Underwood, in his seventh season at Illinois and 11th as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 116-79 with the Illini and 225-106 overall.

What To Watch For: Let’s play a game I’m going to call “Streaky Or Good?”

When a team has a 64-18 run across 29 minutes of the first 80 minutes of their season, but gets outscored 87-82 in the other 51 minutes of their season so far, are they streaky or are they good?

Because that’s Illinois.

In their opener against Eastern Illinois, the Illini were tied with the Panthers at 23 with just over five minutes to play in the first half. With seven minutes to go in the game, Illinois was up 63-33. That’s 40-10, with runs of 21-2 and 15-2 as separated out by Does it matter that they got outscored 19-17 in the final seven minutes? Not so much at that point, but it did happen.

On Friday night against Oakland, the Golden Grizzlies were up 45-42 midway through the second half. Illinois finished the game on a 22-8 run and won by 11. They held Oakland without a point for more than seven minutes, and honestly, it was a 22-3 run before the Grizz scored the final five points of the game in the final minute.

Streaky Or Good?

Does it matter to Illinois how they won the games? Not particularly. Does it matter to Marquette? Absolutely, because the evidence at hand is that Illinois got stagnated for 64% of their season by two teams that the computers and oddsmakers say that they had a better than 95% chance of beating. If those teams can do that to Illinois, fight them to a standstill for more than half the game in both contests, what can Marquette do to them? More importantly to head coach Shaka Smart and the Golden Eagles: What does MU have to do to stop Illini from getting onto a heater in the first place?

Keep an eye on Marquette’s turnovers on offense. The Golden Eagles have been very good with the ball through two games, committing just nine turnovers in each game. In limited sample size against overmatched opponents, MU is keeping better track of the ball than they did last year when they were a top 30 team in turnover rate. This is notable because Brad Underwood’s Illinois teams have historically been bad at forcing turnovers themselves, and against overmatched opponents (or at least opponents that looked overmatched on paper), the Illini have kept right on track with that so far this year. What happens when a potent offense that doesn’t make mistakes faces a defense that seems allergic to creating mistakes by opposing offenses? Feels like a big offensive night for MU as long as they play like their normal selves, right?

The Illini have struggled a little bit on the offensive glass through two games, which is good news for a Marquette team that is still no better on the defensive glass than they were last year. However, in five of Brad Underwood’s first six seasons in Champiagn, the Illini have been a top 100 offensive rebounding team by way of rate per, and they’ve been top 40 three times. If they return to that form on Tuesday night, that’s going to be a big problem for the Golden Eagles.

All-Time Series: Illinois leads, 9-6. The teams first met in 1940, and a majority of the matchups came before John Kennedy first sat down in the Oval Office. Marquette has won all three meetings that have happened since 1990, which was back-to-back encounters in December of 1992 and 1993, along with a November 2021 upset of a #10 ranked Illinois team at Fiserv Forum in Shaka Smart’s third game in charge.