There's probably only one opposing head coach in Division I who's guaranteed to receive a huge pregame ovation from Illinois fans - and he'll be on the sidelines for Friday's non-conference game between Valparaiso (2-1) and No. 23 Illinois (2-1).
Roger Powell Jr., the starting power forward on the Fighting Illini squad that went all the way to the 2005 NCAA championship game, returns to Champaign as the Beacons' first-year head coach.
Powell has done a lot of winning in his career - 114 victories in four years at Illinois, 124 wins in five years as Bryce Drew's assistant at Valpo, 121 wins in four years as a Gonzaga assistant - and now he's back to try to rebuild a program that has been below .500 six of the last seven seasons.
"I had four great years at the University of Illinois," Powell said. "I've been able to coach some tremendous teams and be a part of some awesome teams as an assistant coach. Those memories are special. For me as a head coach taking over this program, I'm trying to create those memories for my guys."
The game at the 15,544-seat State Farm Center will be, by far, the biggest arena in which Valpo will play until the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, so that will be a memory for the Beacons. And if Powell's young roster can hang with the Illini for a while, that will make the memory even brighter.
Upon his hiring, Powell had to remake nearly all of Valpo's roster as he retained just three scholarship players. The Beacons' eight-man rotation features three freshmen and two sophomores as Southern Indiana transfer Isaiah Stafford (16.7 ppg) and Murray State transfer Jaxon Edwards (15.7 ppg) are Valpo's leading scorers.
While Valparaiso builds, Illinois searches for consistency. The Illini went toe-to-toe with No. 4 Marquette for 30-plus minutes Tuesday night, but they missed 14 of their last 16 shots and committed five turnovers down the stretch in a 71-64 loss.
"You can't turn the ball over 15 times," said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. "We had a few rebounds late that we didn't secure. Couple missed layups, couple unforced turnovers and that's the ball game."
"We've got to continue with our chemistry and our togetherness and development. That will take effect in execution and other things."
Despite the loss, Underwood was heartened by the numbers put up by Southern Illinois grad transfer Marcus Domask and backup shooter Luke Goode. Domask, who brought a well-rounded game from SIU, produced 18 points and 6 rebounds. Goode delivered a career-high 13 points, including 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range, in 18 minutes.
"I thought Marcus was sensational," Underwood said. "It was great to see him break out in an Illinois uniform."
But after Goode drilled a 3-pointer to cut Marquette's lead to 58-55 with 6:20 to play, all-Big Ten wing Terrence Shannon Jr. was the only Illini to score. He delivered 9 of his team-high 21 points as his teammates kept turning to him to produce.
"We've got to continue to grow," Underwood said. "We've got to be more than Terrence Shannon ramming his head downhill. We're got to learn to trust that (we have additional options)."
--Field Level Media
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