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2017-’18 Illinois Fighting Illini Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Illinois Fighting Illini and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2017-’18 season.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

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In last year’s season preview, I opened up by quoting Whitesnake and comparing the Illini to “Door No. 3” on a gameshow. You can debate whether my comparisons were accurate, but my point still stands. Everything was up in the air for Illinois heading into last season. It was anyone’s guess whether John Groce could get things back on track, or whether he would struggle enough to warrant a head coaching change.

Of course, things are much, much different now.

After an underwhelming 20-15 season that culminated in an NIT appearance, Illinois made the tough decision to let Groce go and to move in another direction. While it’s disingenuous to believe Athletic Director Josh Whitman had much of a decision to make by the end of last season, anytime a program opts to make such a change at the top, it’s never easy. Even if the initial decision is an obvious one, finding a quality replacement is immensely difficult and can send even the best programs spinning in circles for decades.

The good news for Illinois is that Whitman went out and made a splashy hire that should set the Illini up for success in the coming years. He moved in on Oklahoma State’s Brad Underwood, who is one of the most underrated coaches in the country.

Since becoming a head coach, Underwood has an incredibly decorated career. He had an 89-14 (.864) overall record in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin and then went 20-13 in one season at Oklahoma State. Moreover, Underwood’s teams have ranked in the top 70 on KenPom and made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four seasons. For comparison, Illinois ranked No. 125 on KenPom two years ago and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Underwood and his staff will now take over a program that has the potential to reach elite heights. That’s good and bad news for Underwood. He will have far more tools at his disposal, but the expectations are going to be far greater for him than he’s ever seen as a head coach before. The pressure will now be on to recruit, develop, and, most importantly, win at a nationally elite level.

However, putting all these pieces of the puzzle together in year one is going to be tremendously difficult for Underwood and his staff. Not only because the roster has undergone major offseason upheaval, but also because the program hasn’t performed at an elite level in years. Even if Underwood is the right guy for the job, this is likely a process that could take (at least) a season or two. It’s just the nature of his circumstances.

But even if there is uncertainty regarding when and/or whether Underwood can get Illinois back to the top of college basketball, there’s excitement in the program again. And maybe that will be enough for year one. Let’s take a look.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Illinois Fighting Illini, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Illini, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and The Champaign Room Contributor Brad Repplinger breaking down Illinois’ roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2016-’17 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-15 (8-10)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #66
  • RPI Rating: #64
  • Postseason Appearance: NIT

No matter your perspective, Illinois wasn’t a bad team last season. The Illini won 20 games, ranked in the top 70 on KenPom, and was a win or two away from making the NCAA Tournament. Moreover, the team had 10 wins against teams in KenPom’s top 100, including four away from home. While those numbers might not tell the entire story, they clearly indicate that the Illini were far from terrible.

Unfortunately, “not being terrible” isn’t going to cut it at Illinois. After three seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance, Groce needed to do more than simply avoid the lowest rungs of college basketball. He needed to show he could build a team with consistency that could perform in the Big Ten. It was time to win games and make the NCAA Tournament. Illinois did some of the former and failed entirely at the latter.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of last season for Illinois was the hot start, which was followed by such an underwhelming finish. Despite racing out to a 10-3 record to start the season, Illinois ended up sitting at just 14-12 overall and 4-9 in Big Ten play halfway through February.

Yes, the schedule got tougher as Illinois moved from non-conference to conference play, but that was an absolute collapse for the team. In fact, it looks even worse when you consider that four of those losses came at home and two more came against underwhelming Indiana and Penn State teams. It was at that point that I started arguing for Illinois to move on from John Groce.

Admittedly, Illinois did show some signs of life after that 4-9 start to conference play. The team won its next four games, including a road matchup against Iowa and home games against Michigan State and Northwestern.

But the damage was already done. By blowing so many manageable games during that opening 13-game stretch to Big Ten play, Illinois gave itself no margin for error when the calendar rolled into March. And when the team blew a game at Rutgers to close the regular season and was blown out by Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, fans knew it was over for the team and, more importantly, for Groce.

Again, Illinois wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t even a bad team last year. But it was hopelessly mediocre when the games counted the most. Its inconsistency, inability to win at home, and inability to score wins in manageable road games doomed it to another NIT appearance and cost Groce his job.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over BYU and VCU, season sweeps of Iowa and Northwestern, and a huge home win against Michigan State in early March. Low points of the season included a home loss to Winthrop, two losses to Penn State, a road loss to Rutgers, and a blowout loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament after the Wolverines had just survived a plane crash.

Individual statistical leaders were Leron Black and Malcolm Hill. Black led the team in rebounds, Hill led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, total win shares, and usage.

2. Offseason Exits

With so much youth, Illinois has gotten pretty lucky in recent years with offseason departures. The Illini have certainly lost key pieces during Groce’s tenure, but most of them have been well dispersed, meaning that the team usually only had to replace one to two key pieces a year. That’s usually good news for a team’s chances.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those years.

Illinois is not only losing three starters from last year’s team, but four players who played starter minutes last season, including the team’s top four players in total minutes and leading scorer. All told, Tracy Abrams, Alex Austin, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, and Mike Thorne will be departing after exhausting their eligibility and Jalen Coleman-Lands will be transferring.

That’s seven players, including a lot of key contributors.

To put that in perspective, just look at the team’s returning minutes. Illinois is losing its top four, five of its top eight, and six of its top nine players in total minutes from last season. No matter who else you return, how you recruit, or how you develop, that’s going to be difficult to replace. This is Kentucky-level departures without (as detailed below) the Kentucky-level recruiting to replace those lost contributions.

The biggest departure, of course, comes from senior guard Malcolm Hill. While Hill didn’t get the national attention of some other Big Ten players, his career numbers were fantastic. He finished his career with 1,846 points, 647 rebounds, and 281 assists. As a senior, he averaged 17.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. He scored double-digits in 31 individual games last season. Perhaps nobody in the Big Ten was as consistent of a scorer as Hill during his four-year career in Champaign.

Along with Hill, Illinois is also losing its top two players at center (Morgan and Thorne) and three of its biggest backcourt contributors (Abrams, Coleman-Lands, Tate) from last season. The emergence of Te’Jon Lucas should help minimize the hit from these backcourt losses. However, considering that Hill spent most of his time on the wing, Illinois is looking at substantial hits to all three of its position groups. That’s not something that’s easily overlooked.

The only good news (if there is any) is that the majority of the departures come from players who weren’t all that great. Hill was fantastic, but Abrams was limited after his series of injuries, Morgan was never close to a star player, Coleman-Lands was very inconsistent, and both Tate and Thorne barely played by the end of the season. The raw numbers leaving the roster are shocking, but only one of these players (Hill) is anywhere close to irreplaceable.

Regardless, Illinois is going to look vastly different next season. Some of that may be welcomed, but it’s also going to look terrifying on paper. And whether Underwood can find answers will tell us all we need to know about the Illini for next season.

3. New Additions

This season, the Fighting Illini will be adding five new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Gregory Eboigbodin, Trent Frazier, Mark Smith, DaMonte Williams, and Matic Vesel. According to 247Sports, Frazier and Smith are four-star prospects, Eboigbodin and Williams are three-stars, and Vesel is unranked. Frazier and Williams are listed as point guards, Smith as a shooting guard, and Eboigbodin and Vesel are listed as power forwards.

The two recruits who have received the most attention to date are Frazier and Smith. This probably isn’t all that surprising, given that both are top 100ish (Frazier is No. 108 nationally) prospects. Realistically, Illinois is going to hope that (at least) one of these two is ready for a significant bench and/or starting role. Lucas should lock down the point guard position, but everything else in the backcourt is a question mark. Fans are hoping that one of these two can hit the ground running.

Along with those two, Williams also projects well in the backcourt. From a rankings perspective, he should be a little “extra insurance” to ensure that the team can find a quality contributor or two from the freshmen. He likely will need some time to develop, but perhaps he can steal a few minutes a game.

The final two new prospects are Eboigbodin and Vesel. Both were late cycle commits after Underwood took over as head coach. Neither were heavily recruited at the Power Five level and were primarily added as “bodies” to fill the scholarship chart. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth. And, of course, it also doesn’t negate the possibility that these guys could turn into quality players. However, based upon how these guys were recruited, anything Underwood can get out of these two should be gravy.

Illinois will also be adding one major contributor from the transfer market. After a lengthy process, Wright State transfer Mark Alstork announced that he would be joining the Illini for next season.

As a graduate transfer, Alstork will be immediately eligible. He averaged 19.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game at Wright State last year and figures to battle from day one in the backcourt. The only question will be how he fits next to Lucas.

All told, Illinois has a nice group of additions coming in this offseason. Alstork could be a starter from the outset of next season and both Frazier and Smith have the potential to be nice rotational pieces. The bottom of the class is a bit underwhelming after some decommitments, but there’s still a lot to like going forward.

4. Points of Optimism

Let’s start this section with the obvious. This is an entirely new coaching staff with a roster that is going through a major overhaul. Illinois is going to be the definition of a “new look” team this year. And given the malaise that had impacted the fanbase for portions (if not all) of the last four seasons, that’s exciting.

This might be simplistic, but sometimes a fresh perspective can shake up things so much that the same pieces end up producing more than they did before. Well, Underwood has an exciting style of basketball and a system that has turned middling prospects into NBA players. I can’t say if that process is going to work in a year, but it has far more potential than Illinois has seen recently. And that’s good news.

Additionally, even though Illinois is losing a massive amount of contributions from last season, it still has enough proven on its roster to make a solid starting lineup relatively feasible. If one or two things goes right, Illinois could very easily wind up with one of the more dangerous lineups in the league.

To put that into context, just think about this way. Both Lucas and Leron Black are proven players for the Illini. Maybe they weren’t superstars last season, but they were productive with significant minutes. Each should be (at least) a competent Big Ten starter. On top of that, Alstork has already proven he can play at a high level. If he’s anything close to what he was with Wright State, he could very well be one of the team’s best players this season. So, despite all those offseason losses, Illinois can get to three quality starters without much projecting needed.

And on top of those three, Illinois returners Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols on the wing and Michael Finke upfront. It would be disengenuous to claim any of those three project to be great next season. But if those three can play 10 to 15 productive minutes, the team can fill out its wing and frontcourt. Then, anything from the incoming freshmen can be added on top of those contributions.

The schedule is also fortuitous. There are few major non-conference challenges and most of the Big Ten schedule features winnable games. Illinois will routinely be an underdog in league play, but few games are “guaranteed” losses. If the Illini can slightly outperform expectations, wins are there for the taking.

No matter how you project things, there’s going to be uncertainty in next year’s Illinois lineup. However, if the team can get a break or two and some solid development, watch out. There isn’t going to be a ton of depth, but depth is overrated in college basketball anyway.

5. Team Weaknesses

For Illini fans hoping that Underwood can hit the ground running year one, this is a section that might be worth skipping. Not because it’s impossible, but because Underwood and his staff will face an uphill battle this season. There are some major red flags facing Illinois heading into next season.

To start, this is a thin roster. Not only do the Illini only have 11 scholarship players right now, but at least two of those were late cycle additions after Underwood was hired. Although Eboigbodin and Vesel could make a mark as freshmen, there’s no denying that the track record of such late additions is not very encouraging. Illinois should be happy if these two can develop into depth players as upperclassmen.

Given this situation, Illinois is realistically looking at nine players ready to contribute at the collegiate level. That’s not even enough players to guarantee a two-deep at all five positions. That’s not always a perfect measure for depth, but it puts things into perspective. Without a walk-on or late addition making a mark, this team will be one or two injuries away from no quality depth.

And, even if you ignore the thin roster, the pieces that are present aren’t exactly promising either. Of the team’s 11 scholarship players, five are true freshmen, one is a graduate transfer who has yet to play a minute for Illinois, and three are third or fourth-year players who failed to even average 20 minutes a game last season.

The only players who are “known” commodities for Illinois heading into next season are Black and Lucas, and both of those two just barely averaged more than 20 minutes a game last season. Admittedly, Lucas was playing major minutes by season’s end, but Black struggled with his consistency and Lucas can’t do everything by himself. Whether fans like it or not, somebody is going to have to surprise for Illinois to be good.

Think about it this way. Most expect Alstork and Lucas to lock down the backcourt and Black to lock down a spot on the wing. However, there’s major uncertainty everywhere else. Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols have shown bursts, but neither is a guarantee on the wing. And even if Illinois has some pieces upfront like Michael Finke and the two freshmen bigs, none of those guys project to be quality starters. Realistically, there’s going to be at least a weak spot or two.

Perhaps the most concerning position of all (as mentioned) will be the frontcourt. While Black and Finke return, Illinois is losing the vast majority of its contributions at center in Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne. And while Finke’s raw efficiency numbers were solid, his overall production (6.9 PPG) was far from impressive. Moreover, even though the team adds two big men, both were unheralded late additions. Thus, it’s hard to feel too optimistic about the frontcourt heading into next season.

Illinois will have the opportunity to overcome these obstacles during the upcoming season, but given the sheer magnistude of some of these issues, Underwood and his staff will have their hands full.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, my top choices for the team’s best players were Hill and Thorne. While Hill’s overall numbers blew away Thorne’s production, Thorne was really efficient before he missed the majority of the 2015-’16 season with injury. As such, he warranted discussion:

“Things will look relatively similar heading into this season with Hill and Thorne both returning. Although Nunn won’t be back, it’s pretty easy to think the team’s best player will be one of these two. Hill averaged an impressive 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists and will look to continue that success this year. Thorne only played in eight games, but averaged an impressive 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.”

Ultimately, Hill ended all discussion in this regard. His 2016-’17 performance was incredible and he cemented himself in Illini history for years to come. He will go down as one of the program’s best statistical players of all-time.

But with Hill graduting, there is no clear selection for the team’s best player this season. The top returning candidates would be Black and Lucas. However, graduate transfer Alstork will likely make some noise before next season is done. He’s a very talented player that averaged 19.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game last season at Wright State.

The wildcards here will likely come from the freshmen. Obviously, given the recruiting rankings, the easiest players to tap would be Frazier and Smith. Both were top 100ish prospects. But given that neither is considered to be an elite prospect, it’s hard to envision either being the team’s best player next season.

7. 2017-’18 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/10 - Southern
  • 11/12 - Tennessee Martin
  • 11/17 - DePaul (Gavitt Games)
  • 11/19 - Marshall
  • 11/22 - Augustana (ILL.)
  • 11/24 - North Carolina Central
  • 11/28 - at Wake Forest (Big Ten - ACC Challenge)
  • 12/1 - at Northwestern
  • 12/3 - Maryland
  • 12/6 - Austin Peay
  • 12/9 - at UNLV
  • 12/13 - Longwood
  • 12/16 - vs New Mexico State (Chicago, Ill.)
  • 12/23 - vs Missouri (St. Louis, Mo.)
  • 12/30 - Grand Canyon
  • 1/3 - at Minnesota
  • 1/6 - at Michigan
  • 1/11 - Iowa
  • 1/15 - at Nebraska
  • 1/19 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/22 - Michigan State
  • 1/24 - Indiana
  • 1/30 - Rutgers
  • 2/4 - at Ohio State
  • 2/8 - Wisconsin
  • 2/11 - Penn State
  • 2/14 - at Indiana
  • 2/17 - Nebraska
  • 2/20 - at Michigan State
  • 2/22 - Purdue
  • 2/25 - at Rutgers

Maybe this is a bit of an overreaction, but this season’s schedule looks pretty manageable for the Illini. With so many moving parts, it’s generally difficult to make statements of that magnitude. After all, there are more than 30 games on this schedule with a plethora of different teams that are rising and falling. So, making grand statements about how it looks on paper is usually a different and foolhardy task.

But, even with that in mind, this schedule looks pretty manageable.

Let’s start with non-conference play. Outside of the “buy” games, Illinois is faced with six games that look challenging on paper. Those games are against DePaul, Marshall, Wake Forest, UNLV, New Mexico State, Missouri, and Grand Canyon. All six of those teams are either a “name brand” or finished in, or near, the top 150 on KenPom last season. Crazy things happen in college basketball, but Illinois should be a significant favorite in the remaining seven non-conference games.

And when you evaluate those six challenging games, things don’t look all that overwhelming. To start, DePaul and UNLV finished well outside the top 150 on KenPom last season and Marshall, Missouri, and Grand Canyon all ranged between 149 to 156. While some of those teams could improve (Missouri should be good), Illinois is still looking at a non-conference schedule that could (reasonably) feature 12 of 13 games against teams well outside KenPom’s top 100 teams. With a slate like that, Illinois could easily win double-digit non-conference games.

Of course, there will be challenges though. To start, that road game against Wake Forest looks daunting. The Demon Deacons had a young team (No. 275 in KenPom’s experience metric) last season and still managed to finish No. 36 on KenPom and make the NCAA Tournament. And with new blood flowing into places like DePaul, Missouri, and UNLV, it’s not safe to assume those will be easy wins either. This schedule doesn’t look immensely difficult, but if Illinois regresses and some of the team’s opponents improve, things won’t look nearly as manageable.

In Big Ten play, there won’t be many surprises for the Illini. Things will always be challenging, but the good news is that Illinois ended up getting Indiana, Nebraska, and Rutgers in double-plays and Iowa and Penn State at home this season. Barring a significant improvement from Indiana, that’s a pretty manageable route to eight Big Ten wins. Admittedly, Illinois probably won’t win all of those games, but that should work to soften what is otherwise a brutal Big Ten slate.

Outside of those eight games, Illinois is looking at 10 games either on the road or against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last March, with five of those games against NCAA Tournament teams on the road. Outside of a road game against a rebuilding Ohio State, there likely won’t be many wins for the taking in this group. Maybe the Illini can steal one or two, but all of these will be uphill battles.

The prime opportunities will likely be Maryland at home on December 3rd and Wisconsin at home on February 2nd. However, Maryland should have a major depth and talent advantage and while the Badgers lose a significant number of players, people have been predicting Wisconsin’s downfall for more than a decade and it hasn’t happened yet. Simply put, expect a pretty low ceiling on the team’s league win total due to these 10 games.

Overall, this is a pretty well made schedule for where the Illini currently sit as a program. While this light non-conference schedule will likely prevent Illinois from making a serious NCAA Tournament run, the schedule gives the team a chance to grab wins and build confidence in a rebuilding season.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Te’Jon Lucas (So.) - 95%
  • SG: Mark Alstork (Rs. Sr.) - 80%
  • SF: Kipper Nichols (Rs. So). - 65%
  • PF: Leron Black (Rs. Jr.) - 80%
  • C: Michael Finke (Rs. Jr.) - 55%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Despite the team’s roster and depth issues, Illinois actually projects to have a decent starting lineup. All five starters figure to have experience and several have already demonstrated that they can play at a high level. If the Illini can find a few more players to go around them, the starting lineup could be really interesting.

In the backcourt, the two starters figure to be Lucas and Alstork. These two actually seem on pace to be two of the team’s best players. Lucas was one of the Big Ten’s best newcomers last season and Alstork was one of the better graduate transfers in the country this offseason. The team’s success or failure will start here.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of uncertainty elsewhere.

On the wing, Black figures to be an easy bet to lock down a starting role. He played major minutes last season and was one of the better rebounders in the league. If Black can continue to progress, he could be a nice starter. But the other spot on the wing will be up in the air. Based on last season, Nichols seems like the safest bet. However, he has struggled to find consistent playing time. Another potential choice here is upperclassman Aaron Jordan.

But nowhere has more questions than the frontcourt. With Morgan and Thorne gone, there are no easy answers here. Finke projects to be the starter, but it’s hard to feel confident in a guy who was eighth on last year’s team in points per 40 possessions. Notably, he only scored double-digits in two of the team’s final 14 games. Perhaps the “light will come on” for him in his fourth year, but it seems more reasonable to think he is what he is at this point.

Behind Finke, there are a few potential candidates, but plenty of questions. The only players above 6-foot-7 are Eboigbodin and Vesel and both are true freshmen. Moreover, neither came in with much recruiting hype. In fact, both were late additions by Underwood after he got hired to fill out the class. Expecting either of these two to make an immediate impact is pretty unrealistic. It’s possible, but not likely.

There are going to be a lot of questions about Illinois heading into next season. However, the team still looks poised to put out a solid lineup. There will be plenty of depth questions, but it’s not hard to see two stars in the backcourt, a solid player on the wing, and two more functional players. If Illinois can get that, perhaps the Illini can make more noise than many are expecting this season.

9. Team Perspective From Tristen Kissack of The Champaign Room

"When the Illini suit up for their first regular season game this Friday, the team will look almost completely different. Illinois loses over 50 points per contest and over 20 rebounds per game off last year’s team. Losing this kind of production would be hard for any team to replace, but if any coach in the country can restore life to this team, it’s Brad Underwood.

Underwood comes from Oklahoma State after just one season where he took a 12-20 program and flipped those numbers to 20-13. His offense was ranked #1 in the country last year in efficiency, and he has made it clear that is his staple. Prior to his stint at OSU, he went 89-14 overall and 53-1 in conference in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin.

He will have his work cut out for him this season with the Illini. He inherits a team with a lot of question marks. Who is the leader on this team? Who will be the go-to guy down the stretch when the team needs a bucket? The additions of transfer Mark Alstork and Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith are the obvious answers, but they are newcomers to this team like many others.

It will be a season full of growing pains and inconsistencies, especially early on, but this should be a team that finishes right at, or just below 20 wins.”

10. Overall Season Outlook

The word “rebuild” gets thrown around a lot in college sports. Anytime a coach takes over a program, the media and fans debate how long its going to take the new coach to rebuild, rebranding, and start winning. It’s always just a matter of time before things get restored to how things should be.

The vast majority of the time, those comments are utter nonsense.

Maybe this time too.

But probably not.

Hiring Underwood was a fantastic move by Illinois. He’s a proven winner with a system and has a history in the state of Illinois. He’s going to recruit quality players, develop them, and should win a lot of games at Illinois. This was quietly one of the best hires in college basketball last season and will likely mean big things down the line.

Unfortunately, even if Underwood was the right hire, he inherited a mess. Landing Alstork and a few late additions should help ease some of those roster issues, but they will still be there. While Illinois should be able to field a functional lineup, the roster is incredibly thin and the frontcourt appears to be a major concern. Even if Underwood gets the most out of this roster, it’s hard to see a team like that going all that far.

To put that into perspective, just take a look at the starting lineup. While Illinois projects to have a decent starting lineup, if any of those players suffers an injury or fails to meet expectations, there won’t be any easy solutions. This Illini team is going to be walking a tightrope all season, which usually doesn’t spell good results. Illinois will have to hope that some role players exceed expectations and players like Alstork, Black, and Lucas become stars.

Illinois should see bright days ahead with Underwood at the helm. But most of those days will likely come sometime beyond this season. The Illini will have a chance to do some damage with a soft schedule, but it’s hard to picture this roster contending at the highest level without some surprising developments.

Big Ten Prediction: 9th Place