Illinois, SLU and Mizzou basketball teams giving hope for a winter full of wins

If you like college basketball, then you should enjoy what you’ve seen from the region’s Division I teams this month.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood pulled his rebuilt team together quickly. SLU has already banked two victories over name-brand schools, and Dennis Gates is breathing life into the Missouri program.

The Illini sit at No. 16 in the latest Associated Press poll after defeating UCLA in Las Vegas before falling to Virginia.

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“I’m learning just as much about this group in the heat of the moment,” Underwood told reporters after the Virginia loss. “But go hoop and play and compete and fight? We just did that at a high level. In what you could call a Final Four-caliber event, I feel pretty good about that. We can’t rest on that. We have to drive and get better.”

And they will, thanks to their three talented freshman guards who keep checking all the boxes. Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris keep gaining valuable seasoning.

Coleman Hawkins is still settling into his role as a “stretch five” in the new Illini offense. Dain Dainja is also riding an upward trajectory, which will be critical for when the Illini must slug it out against more traditional centers.

Transfer Terrence Shannon Jr. embraces the challenge of being the go-to scorer and transfer Matthew Mayer is getting acclimated. So the Illini should keep winning while they grow.

SLU took a hard fall against Maryland. But point guard Yuri Collins rallied the Billikens for a valuable victory over Providence in Connecticut.

“St. Louis had a hell of comeback,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said during his postgame news conference. “They showed a lot of grit and toughness.”

The Billikens travel to face No. 13 Auburn on Sunday for another opportunity to gain national attention.

SLU has ample room for improvement while aiming for its first NCAA Tournament since 2019. Collins has been outstanding, but he can soar even higher by forcing fewer passes and finishing stronger at the rim.

Providence St. Louis

Providence’s Noah Locke, left, drives to the basket against St. Louis’ Javonte Perkins, right, during the first half of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, Sunday Nov. 20, 2022, in Uncasville Conn. 

Javonte Perkins can make further strides in his comeback from knee surgery. He regained his aggression during the second half of the Ohio State game and sustained it against Providence. He attacked at all four levels: 3-point jumper, mid-range jumper, floater and drives to the rim.

Sincere Parker is fitting into the offensive flow, but he is 0-for-9 shooting from 3-point range. Postman Francis Okoro must avoid foul fouls because he will earn his share of good ones by battling inside. Back-up Jake Forrester must provide more heft inside and everybody else must help out on the boards.

There is work to do — and yet the Billikens have already banked significant victories over Memphis and Providence.

Coming off a 12-21 season, Missouri enjoyed a successful soft launch of the Gates Era. The Tigers started 5-0 while testing different playing combinations against overmatched opponents.

Noah Carter had a 28-point game but also three games in single digits. D’Moi Hodge had a 30-point game but also a nine-point game. Kobe Brown had a 20-point game but also an eight-point game.

“Some nights, it’s going to be one person, some nights it’s going to be another,” Gates said after the Mississippi Valley State game. “Some night it’s going to be somebody playing 30 minutes, some nights two starters play 17 minutes. That means somebody else stepped up.”

Two-time Missouri Valley Conference scoring champion Isiaih Mosley finally got into the offensive flow with an 18-point game Sunday, but previously, he sat out one game and suffered two four-point performances.

“They’re slowly but surely accepting who we are as a team and the identity they left behind as primary 40-minute guys at (their) last institution, but also guys that couldn’t also run the entire length of the court that same way every single possession,” Gates said. “Now let’s do it all, whatever we got, play as hard as we can and play that way unselfishly.”

Missouri’s guard-centric team will win some Southeastern Conference games with ball movement, hot shooting and ball-pressure defense that could force some opponents into smaller lineups. But they could suffer against teams with strong low post players, which is why Wednesday’s game against Coastal Carolina will be interesting.

The Chanticleers feature 6-foot-9 Essam Mostafa, who ranks fourth among Division I players with 13.3 rebounds per game.

SIU Edwardsville Missouri Basketball

SIU-Edwardsville’s Dorion Staples, left, knocks the ball away from Missouri’s Aidan Shaw, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri won 105-80. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

The area’s other Division I programs have enjoyed breakthroughs as well.

SIU Carbondale played Alabama tough in a nine-point exhibition loss and scored a massive upset at Oklahoma State. SIU Edwardsville started 4-2 and won the JK54 Classic at Longwood University by sweeping three games, including the title game against the host school — which was an NCAA Tournament team last season.

SEMO earned notable road victories at South Florida and Evansville. In its debut Division I season, Lindenwood scored an impressive 78-60 win over McNeese State and also took Western Carolina into overtime at the McNeese Tournament.

All in all, this early basketball season has brought more excitement to the region than we’ve seen in some time.

SLU basketball team responds to big loss with come-from-behind win

Isiaih Mosley helps Mizzou men's basketball team pull away, beat Mississippi Valley State

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