The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 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.
“I want to believe.”
For any science-fiction fan, those words are synonymous with one thing. An image that symbolized the X-Files, a show that kept fans glued to their TVs for the better part of a decade. And even since the X-Files finished airing in 2002, it’s become a common phrase to see on t-shirts and dorm room posters.
It’s also the perfect way to describe the current state of Illinois basketball.
Since Bruce Weber was fired in 2012, not much has gone right for the Illini. The program has missed the NCAA Tournament in each of the last five seasons and has posted an underwhelming 41-67 (.380) record in conference play since Weber’s departure. Neither mark was anywhere near what fans had become accustomed to since Lou Henson first took over in the late 1970s.
And last season was the low point. Illinois posted a putrid 14-18 overall record and ended its season with a loss to Iowa during the dreaded Wednesday slate of the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini only beat one top 50 KenPom team during the course of the 2017-’18 season and were never in serious contention for a postseason bid. It was the team’s lowest overall win total since 1999 and its second-lowest KenPom rating (108) in the history of the website.
By any account, things simply weren’t great.
In fact, they were most assuredly not great.
However, as fans gear up for the upcoming season, there are some other factors to consider as well. To start, last season was Brad Underwood’s first with the program. Rough year or not, Underwood is still one of the more underrated coaches on the national scene. Here’s what I wrote in last year’s season preview:
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.
The vast majority of the statements made then are still true today. Underwood may not have reached those heights in year one, but he’s still a great coach with an outstanding track record. He didn’t forget how to coach because he moved from Texas to Illinois. Underwood is more than capable of fielding a highly competitive team on a yearly basis and recruiting at a high level. Bad year or not, that’s still something for fans to be excited about moving forward.
And the pieces are there to be successful next season. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams return in the backcourt, Kipper Nichols returns on the wing, and the Illini are adding a top 25 recruiting class that features two players among the top 120 nationally. Add in some improved depth and Underwood has a roster that is capable of improving significantly on last season’s performance.
Of course, this leads us back to our original point. There’s enough here to make you want to believe in Underwood and what Illinois can accomplish this season. There is talent and experience on the roster. However, there are also more than enough question marks to make one hesitate. Specifically, the frontcourt and depth look like legitimate concerns. It leads to some puzzling and disjointed feelings about the Illini.
Either way, Underwood’s second season is quickly approaching. Let’s take a look at this year’s Illini.
1. 2017-’18 Season Performance
- Record: 14-18 (4-18)
- KenPom Team Rating: #102
- RPI Rating: #173
- Postseason Appearance: None
Any analysis of the statistics above will tell you about all you need to know about last year’s Illini squad. It wasn’t a great team. In fact, Illinois wasn’t even good, or mediocre. The Illini were a bad unit that didn’t come anywhere close to meeting the program’s lofty expectations. Illini fans want NCAA Tournament appearances and nationally competitive teams. Last year’s team was probably close to 10 wins short of achieving even the first goal.
The point here, though, isn’t to spend thousands of words talking about what last year’s team failed to accomplish. Rather, it’s about using last year as a baseline to project the upcoming season. Until we have a clear view on what the Illini were last season, we can’t gain perspective on what the team will do in the months to come.
This all leads us to one important question: How bad was Illinois actually last season? We all know Illinois wasn’t great, but we need to put that into some context. And there are two ways to approach what Illinois did last season.
First, we could simply view Illinois by its overall measures, which aren’t great. The Illini had a losing overall record against a toughish schedule (No. 71 in KenPom SOS) and closed by losing seven of the team’s final nine games. Outside of a neutral court win over Missouri in December, Illinois failed to do anything noteworthy. Naturally, this perspective is going to leave one with a pretty negative view of last year’s Illini squad.
However, it’s also important to note how that 14-18 record unfolded. The schedule wasn’t terrible and Illinois actually did pretty solid against manageable opponents. Illinois only lost twice to teams rated lower than it on KenPom and only lost twice to teams outside the top 40 in home games. For perspective, here are a few stats about the 18 games that Illinois lost last season:
- 16 of 18 losses came against top 100 KenPom teams;
- 14 of 18 losses came by 10 points or less;
- 12 of 18 losses came away from home;
- Seven losses came against top 40 KenPom teams; and
- Three overtime losses.
Don’t get me wrong. In no way am I trying to excuse what Illinois did last season. Moreover, teams shouldn’t get points for moral victories. However, it’s no secret that mediocre teams struggle on the road, against quality competition, and in closing out games. By any account, that’s what doomed the Illini last season.
Look no further than the home games against Maryland and Purdue and the road trip to Michigan. The Illini had a 97.2 percent win probability against Maryland with less than a minute remaining and narrowly lost to two teams in Michigan and Purdue that ended up making the Sweet 15. Had Illinois been just a bit better in those three games and gotten a tad more luck, that could have been three marquee victories to add to its resume. Instead, Illinois went 0-3 with three depressing losses.
What this tells us is that Illinois wasn’t exceptionally terrible last season. The Illini were a bad team, but couldn’t pull through when it mattered most. And that turned what could have been an underwhelming first season into one that led many to question Underwood’s potential down the road.
Highlights of the season included non-conference withs over DePaul and Missouri and home wins over Indiana and Nebraska. On the flip side, it’s hard to outline one particular low point. This is partially because Illinois lost so many games, but also because so many were so close. The blown game against Maryland seems like the most likely pick.
Individual statistical leaders were Mark Alstork, Leron Black, and Trent Frazier. Alstork led the team in blocks. Black led the team in points, rebounds, total win shares, and usage. Frazier led the team in assists and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
For the second offseason in a row, Illinois suffered a massive amount of offseason departures. Not only are the Illini set to lose three starters and the team’s best player, but also some valuable depth players as well. All told, Mark Alstork, Leron Black, Greg Eboigbodin, Michael Finke, Clayton Jones, Cameron Liss, Te’Jon Lucas, and Matic Vesel have departed from last year’s roster. That’s eight players, including some major contributors.
The remaining six, however, are quite notable.
Let’s begin with the big three in Alstork, Black, and Lucas. While fans knew that Alstork was a one-year graduate transfer when he arrived, he was still a starter for the Illini and played at least 20 minutes in 16 of the team’s 18 regular season conference games. That’s a solid contributor that Illinois will have to replace.
And the loss of Alstork is further complicated by the fact that Lucas played a similar role as well. The two combined for a plethora of minutes in the backcourt and Lucas saw his minutes grow toward the end of the season, playing 20 minutes or more in the team’s final six games. Many would have pegged Lucas to take many of Alstork’s minutes, but he’s now gone as well. It’s a telling fact about the current nature of the roster.
But the biggest departure will come from Black. He was the team’s best player last season and averaged an impressive 15.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 0.8 assists per game last season. Black was also an immensely efficient player inside with a 54.9 percent two-point field goal percentage and top 20 statistics in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. He also finished second on the roster in playing time as a big man.
Those losses alone would be significant, but Illinois is also losing two reserve big men in Eboigbodin and Finke. Both transferred out after playing reserve roles last season. Eboigbodin was a freshman still getting his feet under him and Finke was a veteran reserve option who had already shown his limitations. Neither was anything remarkable last season, but Finke played more than 50 percent of the team’s minutes and Eboigbodin played nearly 25 percent.
What this leaves us with is a roster that’s going to look immensely different from last season and one that has some major question marks. Not only is Illinois losing three starters and the team’s best player, but it’s also losing its two best reserve big men in Eboigbodin and Finke. I won’t spend much time discussing who will replace them because we will hit on that later, but that’s clearly a concerning situation. It’s also going to put a ton of pressure on young and inexperienced players, especially upfront.
However, these departures also won’t doom Illinois. Both Alstork and Lucas played limited roles in the backcourt and the rest of the departures--except Black--were from role players and non-contributors. Generally speaking, those are the type of players you expect programs to replace on a yearly basis. In short, there’s a lot gone here for Illinois, but not enough for fans to write off this season.
3. New Additions
This season, the Fighting Illini will be adding six new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayo Dosunmu, Alan Griffin, Anthony Higgs, Tevian Jones, and Samba Kane. According to 247Sports, Dosunmu and Jones are rated as four-star prospects, while Griffin, Kane, Bezhanishvili, and Higgs are rated as three-stars. Dosunmu as a combo guard, Griffin as a shooting guard, Higgs and Jones as small forwards, Bezhanishvili as a power forward, and Kane as a center.
The recruit who have received the most attention to date in the class is Dosunmu. He’s rated as the No. 32 recruit in the class nationally and is expected by most to be an immediate contributor. Dosunmu is listed at 6-foot-4 and 172 pounds and should be able to get major minutes in the backcourt. The other recruit receiving significant attention is Jones, who landed just outside the top 100 in the 2018 class.
Outside of those two headliners, the remainder of the class will primarily be expected to add depth this season. These four recruits are three-stars and none are within the top 150 nationally. In fact, the only player within the top 200 is Griffin, who finished at No. 185. If any of these four end up seeing significant minutes this season, Illinois either got lucky or something went horribly wrong. Fans should look for contributions from this group in the seasons to come, but don’t expect much early on.
Illinois will also be adding three players on the transfer market. These three are Andres Feliz, Adonis DeLa Rosa, and Tyler Underwood and all could see some playing time. Feliz is a JUCO transfer point guard, De La Rosa is a big man graduate transfer, and Underwood is coming off a redshirt after transferring from Oklahoma State with his father as a walk-on. Feliz also got attention from Rutgers and Wichita State among others and had 28 points and 11 rebounds in the NJCAA Tournament quarterfinals.
Given the team’s offseason losses, there’s no debating that the additions of Feliz and De La Rosa will be warmly welcomed. De La Rosa has the quicker route to playing time, but it’s pretty reasonable to expect both to make it on the court for real minutes this season. While at Kent State last season, De La Rosa averaged 11.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
All told, there’s a lot to like about the program’s newcomers. Dosunmu is a major prospect with star potential, Griffin and Jones are both solid recruits, and there are a plethora of other options that should add depth to the roster. Fans will have to hope that one or two of the lower-rated prospects can jump out and contribute early.
4. Points of Optimism
While Illinois is coming off a rough season and is receiving little national media attention, there are actually some legitimate things to be excited about for this season. This is not a team that is hopelessly doomed for the 2018-’19 season and anybody who claims otherwise simply isn’t looking at this roster with enough analysis.
To start, there are some real pieces coming back. Frazier and Williams are back after solid freshmen seasons and the team also returns solid contributors in Jordan and Nichols. Illinois wouldn’t win a Big Ten title with those four in a starting lineup, but they are all players who have done something at the college level.
All told, these returners give Illinois a floor that it probably didn’t have last year. Frazier flashed star potential last season, Nichols finished second on the roster in win shares, Jordan was an impressive outside shooter, and Williams made a decent showing for a true freshman. These four guys aren’t good enough to win at an extremely high level by themselves, but they have potential when plugged into a roster with some other pieces.
And that’s where the new additions come into the picture.
Dosunmu should be good enough to start from day one and De La Rosa should fill the massive void left in the frontcourt. That should likely let Underwood push Williams to the bench and rotate him with the other backcourt players. That’s a nice mix of talent and experience in the starting lineup.
Illinois also has a plethora of options behind those six. Feliz should give Underwood a nice bench option at the point and some of the newcomers like Griffin and Jones should compete for the last few minutes in the backcourt and on the wing. And Bezhanishvili, Higgs, and Kane will all compete for minutes behind De La Rosa. While none of the three were that highly regard on the recruiting trail, having three three options certainly makes it more likely that Illinois will find a quality frontcourt bench option.
One other thing that’s important to consider as well is what Underwood brings to the table. Illinois was a bad team last season, but it still hung with a lot of good teams. That’s not easy to do, especially when a team continually finds itself falling short in brutal fashion. Moral victories aren’t going to satisfy Illini fans long-term, but it could signal things to come in the future. Can Illinois turn some of those tight losses into victories with a better roster?
While there’s nothing on the Illinois roster that’s set to light the world on fire, there’s more than enough pieces for the team to have a successful 2018-’19 season. And after an extremely rough stretch in Champaign, that has to count for something.
5. Team Weaknesses
Although there are some legitimate reasons for fans to be excited about the upcoming season, there are also more than enough reasons to be concerned as well. Whether optimists admit it or not, Illinois still has a long way to go before fans can simply assume that the program will be competitive each and every season.
Let’s begin with the obvious. Illinois was not a good team last year. We touched on how the Illini were more competitive than some might believe last season, but the Illini were still an underwhelming squad. The team went 14-18 overall and finished 102nd on KenPom. And Illinois had a horrible finish to the season, going 2-13 in its final 15 games against non-Rutgers opponents. By any measure, that’s a pretty rough stretch.
I will avoid needless repetition of what Illinois did last season considering that we’ve already addressed that, but the point should be clear. Illinois needs to get a lot better if the team is going to make some noise this time around. Matching last year’s performance won’t be enough. The Illini need to take a sizable step forward.
Unfortunately, taking a step forward won’t be a given.
The major obstacle will be the team’s clear lack of proven options in the frontcourt. Not only did Black depart from the program, but Eboigbodin and Finkes transferred as well. While Jordan and Nichols may be back, neither of those two are natural big men fit to hold up during Big Ten conference play. Even if the days of two monsters playing down low are over, Illinois is going to need something beyond two guys who are under 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds.
Admittedly, Underwood and his staff did some work over the offseason to add some depth to the roster. De La Rosa joined as a transfer and the Illini added three recruits who are 6-foot-8 or above in Bezhanishvili, Higgs, and Kane. Even if none of those players are world beaters, it gives Underwood something to work with for this season. It also adds some depth in case the team suffers some injuries.
But even if Illinois added some frontcourt pieces this offseason, it’s important to stress again that none of these newcomers are anywhere close to proven. De La Rosa is a graduate transfer, but he’s coming from the JUCO level and the other two schools courting him this offseason were Kent State and St. John’s. That doesn’t exactly indicate De La Rosa is going to be a player capable of putting Illinois on his shoulders. More likely, he will fit the mold of most of the Big Ten’s recent grad transfer big men and be a decent starter, but little (if anything) better than that.
The incoming freshmen also fit similar descriptions. The highest rated of the three is Kane and he arrives as a three-star and the 281st rated prospect by 247Sports. And Bezhanishvili and Higgs are even lower on the rankings, falling well outside the top 350 nationally. Neither was even rated as a top 10 player within his respective state.
While we all know that recruiting rankings aren’t perfect, they put expectations in perspective. This isn’t to write off anybody’s career. It’s just reality. Getting a guy outside the top 100 to be a meaningful contributor in the Big Ten as a freshman is challenging enough. Illinois is likely going to need at least one or two of these guys to be a solid backups if the team is going to have a chance at the postseason. Reasonably speaking, that’s going to be a pretty tough challenge for Underwood based on the historical production of recruits in that range.
Additionally, Illinois also needs to find a player who can take the step from quality starter into legitimate star. I often get pushback about my beliefs in this area, but the history speaks for itself. Teams almost never make the NCAA Tournament and compete for Big Ten titles without at least one or two star players. Go back and look at the All-Big Ten teams over the last few decades. It’s pretty easy to figure out which teams ended up as the best.
The Illini had two players who approached that status last season: Leron Black and Trent Frazier. The two both received All-Big Ten honorable mention status and Frazier was named to the All-Big Ten freshmen team. But Black is now gone and without a clear replacement. And while Frazier returns, he will need to take a step forward from last season. He was a really nice freshmen, but he needs to become a star. Illinois will likely need him to finish on the All-Big Ten first or second team to have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
Much of the same can be said for the team as well. Growing from a “pesky” bottom team into a mediocre team is easy enough. But taking the step after that is where things get difficult. Moral victories need to turn into victories and the team actually has to pull off a few upsets. That’s the most difficult step. And Illinois needs to become mediocre before it even has the chance to try and transition from there.
There are some legitimate reasons for hope this season for the Illini, but the red flags are there as well. Underwood and his team will have to find a way to answer those questions in a positive way if fans are going to be happy with where the program is in March.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, I had mixed thoughts on who figured to be the team’s best player. Not only had Malcolm Hill graduated, but there was no clear standout behind him. Plus, with a new coach, projecting what would happen was pretty difficult. Here’s what I wrote:
“But with [Malcolm] Hill graduating, there is no clear selection for the team’s best player this season. The top returning candidates would be [Leron] Black and [Te’Jon] Lucas. However, graduate transfer [Mark] 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 [Trent] Frazier and [Mark] 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.”
However, in hindsight, there’s little debate who was the team’s best player. Black led the Illini and ended up leading the team in points, rebounds, and overall win shares. He also scored double-digits in 13 of the team’s final 15 games, including an impressive 28 points in an upset over Nebraska at home. Behind him, Frazier was probably the team’s second-best player.
With Black now gone, Frazier will get the attention going into this season. He made the All-Big Ten freshmen team last season and is poised for a breakout. Questions abound as to how much he can improve in one offseason, but hopes are high. If he wants to take that next step, he’s going to have to improve his defense and his production at the free throw line. He didn’t get to the line nearly enough and only shot 64.4 percent once he got there.
Outside of Frazier, the other contenders are Dosunmu and Nichols. There’s little denying that Dosunmu has the pedigree to be a star at the collegiate level. The question is simply whether he can reach those heights in his first season. Nichols enters this season as one of the more experienced players on the team, but has the potential to be a really productive player for the Illini. The biggest challenge for Nichols will be improving his consistency. Just look at his final eight games last season, where he had 12 or more in four games and seven or less in the others.
The safe bet here is Frazier. He had a really nice freshman season and should be able to take a step forward this season. The only question will be how much he improves his game.
7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/2 - Illinois Wesleyan (Ex.)
- 11/8 - Evansville
- 11/13 - Georgetown
- 11/19 - Gonzaga (Maui, HI)
- 11/20 - Arizona/Iowa State (Maui, HI)
- 11/21 - Maui Invitational (Maui, HI)
- 11/25 - Mississippi Valley State
- 11/27 - at Notre Dame
- 12/2 - at Nebraska
- 12/5 - vs Ohio State (Chicago, IL)
- 12/8 - UNLV
- 12/15 - East Tennessee State
- 12/22 - Missouri (St. Louis, MO)
- 12/29 - Florida Atlantic
- 1/3 - at Indiana
- 1/6 - at Northwestern
- 1/10 - Michigan
- 1/16 - Minnesota
- 1/20 - at Iowa
- 1/23 - Wisconsin
- 1/26 - Maryland
- 1/30 - at Minnesota
- 2/2 - Nebraska
- 2/5 - Michigan State
- 2/9 - Rutgers
- 2/14 - at Ohio State
- 2/18 - at Wisconsin
- 2/23 - Penn State
- 2/27 - at Purdue
- 3/3 - Northwestern
- 3/7 - Indiana
- 3/10 - at Penn State
The first thing to remember about this year’s schedule is that the Big Ten bumped up from 18 to 20 conference games this season. For the most part, that means two of the “filler” games have now turned into more challenging conference matchups. Obviously, that’s going to make things more difficult. Additionally, it also means more balanced league slates. From now on, it’s going to be much rarer to get “lucky” and avoid road trips to places like Ann Arbor, East Lansing, and Madison.
With that out of the way, let’s jump into this schedule.
On paper, the non-conference slate looks pretty challenging. Who knows what to expect out of Georgetown and Missouri, but the trip to Maui should be pretty difficult and a game on the road against Notre Dame isn’t exactly an easy matchup. Evansville is also a better team than many might anticipate, finishing 134th on KenPom last season.
Perhaps the oddest thing about this schedule is that it’s hard to get a solid read on what expectations should be for the Illini in non-conference play. Not only because of the question marks surrounding Illinois itself, but also because of the question marks surrounding teams like Georgetown and Missouri as well. While it’s hard to anticipate the Illini taking down Arizona or Gonzaga, the team should be able to win most of its non-con games. Expect a non-conference record somewhere around 8-3.
And things should be just as interesting in conference play.
The early session of Big Ten play for Illinois will feature a road trip to Nebraska and a home game against Ohio State. While it’s hard to imagine the Illini being favored in Lincoln, the team should have a decent chance of beating the Buckeyes at home. These two December games should be pretty telling about where Illinois can go. If the Illini are going to make some noise for the postseason, Illinois probably needs to go 1-1 in those two matchups.
And the heart of conference play starts in much the same way. Here’s the opening stretch in January:
- 1/3 - at Indiana
- 1/6 - at Northwestern
- 1/10 - Michigan
- 1/16 - Minnesota
- 1/20 - at Iowa
- 1/23 - Wisconsin
That’s six games where Illinois should have a chance to grab a win. Sure, Indiana could take a big step forward this season with Romeo Langford and Michigan is coming off a Final Four appearance, but those teams do have question marks. After all, Indiana is entirely unproven and the Wolverines lost quite a bit from last year’s squad. Add in that the remaining four opponents all missed the NIT last season and the road opponents (Iowa and Northwestern) look the weakest and there are wins there for the taking.
Asking for a 6-0 start there is pretty unrealistic, but 4-2 wouldn’t be insane, depending on how Illinois progresses this offseason. And that stretch will be incredibly important because things looks far more difficult down the stretch. Illinois gets most of its games against what figure to be NCAA Tournament competitive teams and few manageable back-to-back opportunities. The momentum likely needs to be built early on.
The tricky part with trying to predict this slate for Illinois is that many of these games fall into the “winnable” category, but will still be uphill battles for the Illini. These are games like Nebraska at home, at Ohio State, and the road trips to Northwestern and Penn State. If Illinois is a bit better and somebody else drops off, they could end up winning four or five more league games. The difference could legitimately be that small.
Overall, Illinois looks like a team destined for six to eight Big Ten wins. Perhaps the best news is that Illinois avoids road trips to Maryland, Michigan, and Michigan State. As such, the only game that looks unwinnable right now is the trip to Lincoln in December. The ceiling is high, if the team improved in the offseason.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Trent Frazier (So.) - 95%
- SG: Ayo Dosunmu (Fr.) - 85%
- SF: Aaron Jordan (Sr.) - 65%
- PF: Kipper Nichols (Rs. Jr.) - 90%
- C: Adonis De La Rosa (Rs. Sr.) - 80%
(Percentage likelihood of starting.)
While depth is a major concern for the Illini, the team has a chance to put a pretty solid starting lineup on the floor this season. With a few key returners and additions, Illinois should have a clear answer, or answers, at virtually every position. We certainly need to see how those pieces fit together, but there are some things to work with this year.
At the point, Frazier returns after a solid freshman campaign. He averaged 12.5 points and 3.1 assists per game and was one of the team’s most reliable options last season. By any measure, Frazier was one of the better freshman in the Big Ten and will be looking to take the next step this season. The only question mark here will be whether he can become a legitimate star contributor in his second season.
Alongside him, Dosunmu figures to be the top contender to lock down a spot in the backcourt. There is plenty of debate about where Dosunmu will fit at the college level, but he’s more than capable of playing at the two. And with Frazier back, Underwood would be well served to get his two most talented players in the lineup.
Illinois will have a litany of options behind Frazier and Dosunmu in the backcourt. Da’Monte Williams is back after a decent freshman year and the program added transfers Andres Feliz and Tyler Underwood and freshman guard Alan Griffin. Given Dosunmu’s ability to play multiple positions, Illinois might only need one of these guys to contribute. Anything beyond that will simply be gravy for the Illini this season.
On the wing, Jordan and Nichols figure to be safe bets to lock down the three and four spots in the lineup. Nichols was in the starting lineup last season and Jordan played starter minutes for much of the season. Both are also upperclassmen and should be the experienced options that help led the Illini throughout this season.
However, while these two seem likely to get spots in the starting lineup, this is the area where Illinois has the biggest opportunity to improve on last season. While Jordan and Nichols made their contributions last season, neither is even close to being an All-Big Ten player. Jordan couldn’t even earn a starting spot on a bad Illinois team last season and Nichols is about as inconsistent as them come.
If Underwood can find a player good enough to push one (or both) of these players to the bench, plenty of things can open up for the Illini. Unfortunately, that’s going to be a tough task. While there are options behind Jordan and Nichols, virtually all of them are true freshmen and the only one who looks particular ready is Jones, who is a four-star and rated 119th nationally by 247Sports. Illini fans will have to hope some of these guys overachieve.
Upfront, Illinois really only has graduate transfer De La Rosa and two true freshmen in Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane. None of the three are particularly highly regarded at the moment and, as such, De La Rosa looks like the best best to start. Fans have to hope that one of the freshmen can develop into a reliable backup.
All told, Illinois has some solid pieces in its starting lineup. Frazier and Dosunmu could be one of the league’s most potent backcourts and Jordan and Nichols are both upperclassmen with a track record. However, there isn’t a lot of proven depth behind these guys. Fans will have to wait and see how some of the younger players step up to see how far this team can go this season.
9. Team Perspective From Kedric Prince of Rivals
”With eight new faces, it’s a new look and one that should bring more excitement to the State Farm Center. Head Coach Brad Underwood teams all defend, shoot it well at all positions and are athletic. Each year, the Big Ten typically has a couple teams that surprise others and Illinois could be that team.
Two dynamic freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Tevian Jones will bring an added dimension to the team that’s been lacking for several years. Because of the quality depth, I expect to see multiple defenses used by Underwood this year. My conference prediction is .500 for this group.
The x-factor is freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili because they’re loaded at all positions and he along with Samba Kane need to fill the void left by Leron Black.” - Kedric Prince.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Since 2007, Illinois has been plagued by inconsistency and underachivement. The program has went 11 seasons without making consequetive NCAA Tournaments and hasn’t been in the Big Ten title picture since John Groce’s first year in Champaign.
Fans had hoped Underwood would correct these issues when he was hired in 2017. He brought an impressive pedigree to the program and had shown the ability to lead programs at a high level. However, his first year was an absolute failure. Illinois finished at 14-18 overall and at 102th nationally on KenPom.
It wasn’t a pretty picture.
But we are now entering the second season with Underwood at the helm. He’s had an opportunity to instill his culture and recruit. Illinois is bringing in a really solid recruiting class and multiple transfers. Add in Frazier and a few other key returners and there’s enough there for Illini fans to get optimistic about the year to come.
There are also issues, though. And a lot of them, too. Illinois doesn’t have a clear picture on who will contribute upfront, the team’s depth has a plethora of question marks, and nobody has any idea on if any players will take the next step. And even if there are returners, few have played at a particularly high level.
What this leaves us with is a picture of a team that should be competitive, but probably doesn’t have enough to contend at the top of the league. There are simply too many question marks and not enough likely answers. But if some things break the right way, Illinois could make some noise for an NCAA Tournament bid this year.