The road to potentially ending a five-year NCAA Tournament drought starts Thursday night for Illinois as the Fighting Illini open their 2018-19 season by hosting Evansville. Illinois second-year coach Brad Underwood will hope to improve on the 14 wins from his first season, the lowest the program has seen since 1998-99.
Despite losing their top scorer and rebounder from a year ago, Underwood said he believes his new crop of freshmen have a similar trait that will lead the Fighting Illini to more W's -- effort. "These guys compete," Underwood told the media. "I think by definition that happens when you get winners. I've talked about it at length in the recruiting process, that's one of the things we tried to evaluate was the character piece of winning." Five-star guard Ayo Dosunmu is the most notable Illinois freshman, having recently starred for the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the FIBA America U18 Championships. Dosunmu is expected to pick up some of the offense lost through the departure of Leron Black, who led the Fighting Illini in points (15.3) and rebounds (5.2) a season ago.
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ABOUT EVANSVILLE (2017-18: 17-15): The Purple Aces return this season without their only three double-digit scorers from last season -- Ryan Taylor (21.3), Dru Smith (13.7) and Blake Simmons (10.4). Junior K.J. Riley and senior Dainius Chatkevicius will handle a heavier load offensively for Evansville, proven in their exhibition win over New Mexico Highlands on Saturday. Riley played the most minutes and had 16 points while Chatkevicius posted team highs with 17 points and eight rebounds.
ABOUT ILLINOIS (2017-18: 14-18): The only four-year player returning to the Fighting Illini is Aaron Jordan, who ranked third in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage (46.3) last season. Jordan, along with juniors Kipper Nichols and Andres Feliz, will provide veteran leadership as Dosunmu and fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili are expected to start and play key minutes for Illinois this season. Feliz, a Dominican Republic native, led the Fighting Illini with 20 points in their only exhibition game, an 83-67 victory over Illinois Wesleyan.
1. Illinois sophomore G Trent Frazier will look to build off a strong freshman year as he led all Big Ten rookies in scoring (12.5), assists (3.1), steals (1.7) and 3's (1.9).
2. While Illinois hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2013, Evansville is waiting for its first appearance this century. The Purple Aces haven't been invited since 1999.
3. Evansville hired former NBA player Walter McCarty as its head coach in March. McCarty was previously an assistant coach with Louisville under Rick Pitino, and in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics.
PREDICTION: Illinois 78, Evansville 64 Bet Now
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