Few teams under as much this offseason than the Illinois Fighting Illini. Whether it was transfers, a lost recruit, a hiring of a new coach or signing of a solid recruiting class, Illinois’ offseason was sometimes painful, but, ultimately, an important step in a new direction.
With the amount of turnover in the program, there are many questions about the Illinois program. Below are just a few as the season stands only seven weeks away.
Three Questions for Illinois:
1. What Immediate Impact Will Brad Underwood Have?
Illinois pulled a coup in taking Underwood away from Oklahoma State this offseason. The 53 year old won 109 games in his four seasons as head coach of Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State and will now take his talents to join the Illini.
A Bob Huggins and Frank Martin disciple, Underwood is actually known more for his offensive coaching prowess. In his only season with the Cowboys in 2016-’17, Oklahoma State was ranked number one in offense in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics. This should be a welcome sight for Illinois fans used to the spastic, hero ball offensive tendencies of the Jon Groce era.
Underwood will have a young roster to mold into his fast pace style. This brings us to our second big question for the Illini - just how good are the young players on this roster?
2. Can The Kids Play?
The Illini will be very young this season.
Illinois loses four out of their top five scorers from last season, and graduate transfer Mark Alstock will be the only senior on the roster.
So what does Illinois have with their young roster? There is definitely some talent in Champaign.
Rising sophomores Te’Jon Lucas (4.8 points per game) and Kipper Nichols (4.8 points per game) will be interesting to watch. Junior Leron Black is the leading returning scorer at 8.1 points per game. Junior Michael Finke (6.9 points per game) also returns to help man down some of the front court.
Outside of the returnees, Illinois is bringing in a dynamic and talented recruiting class. How quickly they are able to make their stamp on the program will likely drive any success the Illini have this season.
According to 247sports, Illinois ranks 30th overall for their 2017 recruiting class and second in the Big Ten. The jewel of the class is 6-foot-5 shooting guard Mark Smith. The in-state prospect chose Illinois over Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana, amongst others.
Another talented addition is point guard Trent Frazier. The 6-foot-2 guard from Florida has some size and will likely be asked to split duties with Lucas. If Smith and Frazier can get up to speed quickly and implement Underwood’s system, it will go a long way in allowing the Illini back court to make some noise this season.
3. Who Replaces Malcolm Hill?
Fellow BTPowerhouse writer, Eddie Herz, had a great breakdown of this the other day, but replacing Hill’s production is one of the central questions about the Illini this offseason.
There were not many more productive players than Hill over the past two seasons. Hill led the Big Ten in scoring in 2015-’16 at 18.1 a game and was third last season at 17.2 a game. It is a shame that we won’t get to see Hill in Underwood’s system this season, but Hill is off in the Philippines continuing his professional basketball career.
It is hard to say at this point who will develop into the go-to scorer. Alstork transferred to Illinois to potentially fill that role. As mentioned, some talented freshmen wait in the wings. A committee approach gets you only so far. It will be interesting to see who gets the last shot on this team during end of game situations.
Illinois is one of the more interesting teams in the Big Ten this season. Not much is expected, but there are paths in which the Illini can return to the national conversation. We’ll see what they are able to accomplish this season, but for Illinois fans it is nice to have a clearer picture on where this program is heading. This season can go a long way in laying the foundation for a return to the top of the Big Ten.