John Groce out, Brad Underwood in. The hiring of the former Oklahoma State assistant garnered significant critical acclaim did not come without its adverse effects.
Not long after the regime change, elite big man and Illinois signee Jeremiah Tilmon was granted his release from the Illini. He would later join Missouri’s stacked class of 2017.
Malcolm Hill, Illinois’ best player and undisputed team leader, graduated this offseason. The guard’s skill and leadership will undoubtedly be missed in Champaign, but the program’s most serious offseason development are the losses of big men Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne Jr., compounded by the aforementioned decommitment of Jeremiah Tilmon.
Does this leave Illinois’ closet bare of bigs?
Well, not completely. They’ve still got Michael Finke, who was a pretty important piece in 2016-17. After him? Leron Black is going to have to do way more front court stuff than he has since he made it to Champaign in 2014.
Illinois will not be lacking in talent. They’ll add top-100 shooting guard Mark Smith and four-star point guard Trent Frazier as well as three-star point guard DaMonte Williams. They add that firepower to a roster that already includes Black, D.J Williams, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan.
The problem is, they’re all guards. The other problem is that of a returning player: The most efficient three-point shooter last season was Michael Finke...projected to be their starting center.
As of now, there’s really no way of knowing what the team will look like when they take the court for their first games in the fall. The possibility of adding a grad transfer big man still can’t be ruled out at this point, but aside from Wright State guard Mike Alstork (who is closing in on his decision), it’s getting a little late to begin pursuing other options.
Obviously, there’s good reason to believe that the majority of their offensive and defensive sets will be of the small ball variety. I mean, that’s kinda necessary at this point.
According to MaxPreps, Frazier is only a decent shooter. He knocked down 34% of his three point attempts as a senior, 61% from the field and 76% from the free-throw line. Not awful, but nothing that ought to be leaned on too heavily.
Smith averaged nearly 22 PPG as a senior, along with 8.4 APG and 8.2 RPG, per 247. Good numbers, and optimism is high for what he’ll bring to the team. DaMonte Williams missed large portions of his senior year due to injury, but according to The Champaign Room, he hadn’t had a very strong 2016 up to that point.
So what’s to expect? High screen and rolls to take advantage of Finke’s shooting touch is something you’ll definitely see. Lots of Leron Black, lots of Jalen Coleman-Lands, and lots of Aaron Jordan. The Illini were not a great shooting team from deep last year, and were a fairly average scoring team overall. Defensively, they lose their two best players in Morgan and Hill.
Luckily, however, Underwood helped lead Oklahoma State to the best offense in the country, according to KenPom. The Cowboys, notably, did not have a whole lot by way of size, either. If there’s anyone who’ll know how to make this work, it’s him.
He’ll have talent, and he’ll have experience. He won’t have much height to work with, and he’ll have to get creative. We’ll just have to wait and see how well he can make it work in the Big Ten.