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Mar 19, 2024 1:37 pm

Riley Minix, Morehead State grab attention of No. 3 seed Illinois

Riley Minix

Illinois coach Brad Underwood exhaled Sunday after the Fighting Illini rallied past Wisconsin to earn the Big Ten tournament title.

“The postseason is over in the Big Ten and thank God we don’t have to see another Big Ten team for a while,” he said.

That may be true, but a dangerous opponent awaits the Fighting Illini in the NCAA Tournament East Region first round nonetheless. Third-seeded Illinois (26-8) meets No. 14 Morehead State (26-8) in Omaha, Neb., and limiting Eagles standout guard Riley Minix looms as a primary task.

Make no mistake, Morehead State will take the same approach to the Fighting Illini’s one-two punch of guard Terrence Shannon Jr. and forward Marcus Domask, who average 23.0 and 16.0 points a game, respectively.

Illinois’ inability to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in its past three appearances isn’t lost on players as they pivot their focus away from the regular season and a vaunted conference tourney.

“If we lose a game, then all of that was for nothing,” said Quincy Guerrier, one of four Illinois players who average double-figure scoring. “We’ve got to make sure we’ll be locked in. … We worked pretty hard the whole year. We have some games that maybe we should have won, but it doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to respect (Morehead State). There’s a lot of upsets in March. We’ve got to make sure we play our basketball and be connected and work really hard to get that win.”

Morehead State enters on a six-game winning streak after losing three straight in mid-February.

The Eagles have been on a continued run of success. Senior guard Drew Thelwell has been present for all 94 wins since he arrived in 2020 and set the school single-season assist record this season. Another guard, Kalil Thomas, is in the top 20 nationally with 103 3-pointers this season.

A transfer from Southeastern University, an NAIA school in his home state of Florida, Minix garnered Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year honors in his lone NCAA Division I season while averaging 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds.

Minix contributed 26 points and seven boards during Morehead State’s 69-55 win against Little Rock in the OVC tournament championship game on March 9. The 6-foot-7 Minix has scored 20 points or more in 12 of the past 13 games for coach Preston Spradlin’s team.

“I think it just comes down to the culture that Coach P and all these guys have set here. … I’m immersed in the culture and that’s why I chose (Morehead) on my visit,” Minix said. “They’ve made it easy, all my teammates, one through 15, and then everybody alongside of us.”

To Spradlin, Minix’s intangibles augment his physical skills, truly setting him apart.

“He’s really tapped into the fact that not only is he the strongest player on the court most nights but he’s typically the most intelligent,” Spradlin said. “He’s able to find ways to impact the game even when he’s tired or even when he has a tough matchup, because his ability to retain and execute details from game to game is exceptional.”

Illinois cruised in the only previous meeting between the schools, earning a 110-75 home victory against Morehead State on Dec. 10, 1993.

Thursday’s winner meets the winner of an earlier matchup between sixth-seeded BYU and No. 11 Duquesne in the second round on Saturday.

–Field Level Media

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