CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — The Illinois basketball season is upon us with the 23rd-ranked Illini hosting Eastern Illinois at 8 p.m. on ESPNU. It’s the start of Year 6 for Brad Underwood, who made his debut against the Panthers back in 2017, an exhibition game loss in Charleston. Five years later and Underwood has resurrected the program, winning a Big Ten regular season championship last season and a conference tournament title in 2021. Illinois been the winningest program in the Big Ten the past three years, posting a 44-16 record in that stretch, the best in conference play in program history.

The Panthers are in Year 2 with Marty Simmons at the helm. The longtime coach went just 5-26 in his debut year at EIU but features two players with Illini and local connections. Jermaine Hamlin transferred to Eastern from Illinois. The Lincoln native says he’s looking forward to facing his former team.

“I know a few of the guys on the team,” Hamlin said. “RJ (Melendez), I know him pretty well. I just think it’s going to be a fun game. Me and those guys, there’s nothing bad between us. For me it’s really just a normal game, regardless of who the opponent is. It just happens to be them this time.”

Illinois assistant coach Geoff Alexander played a big part in recruiting Hamlin to Illinois. Alexander used to coach for Simmons at Evansville as well. The other area connection is Panthers senior Yaakema Rose. The Springfield native played at Parkland College before transferring to University of Missouri-Kansas City. He’s using his grad transfer year with the Panthers. Meanwhile, EIU athletic director Tom Michael is a former Illini player and athletic department staffer. Michael was a four-year letterwinner from 1991-94 and one of the all-time great shooters in program history. He still holds records for season (.493) and career (.449) 3-point percentage. Following his playing career, Michael spent 18 years in the U of I’s Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, rising to senior associate athletic director, before taking over at EIU in 2014.