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2019-’20 Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Illinois Fighting Illini and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘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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March 18, 2006 isn’t a date that will stick out to many Big Ten fans at first glance. In fact, it’s a date that probably isn’t even remembered by most Illini fans. Yet, it’s one that fans probably should keep in their minds. It’s funny how things work like that sometimes. Some things can be so impactful, yet slip under the radar for many.

While many point to the team’s trip to the national championship game in 2005 as the beginning of the downfall for Illinois basketball, that date in March of 2006 is probably even more important. That’s because it was the true start of the program’s decline. It was that last mark of land before the Illini went out to sea.

And unfortunately, the Illini still haven’t returned.

Since losing to Washington in the second round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Illinois really hasn’t accomplished much. The Illini have missed 9 of the last 13 NCAA Tournaments, failed to win any Big Ten titles, and have experienced six seasons with fewer than 20 wins. For more than a decade, Illinois has been the epitome of a mediocre program. A brush with relevance here or there, but nothing notable.

The program has, of course, tried to figure things out over the last 13 years. Illinois fired Bruce Weber in 2012 and then John Groce in 2017. The Illini have tried building the program on the recruiting trail, on the transfer market, and even through ‘ole fashioned development. Unfortunately, nothing has really stuck. Every step forward has been followed by an epic collapse on the court.

In 2018, Illinois once again attempted to get things right as the program hired Brad Underwood to take over at the helm. He arrived with an impressive pedigree, having previously coached at Oklahoma State and Stephen F. Austin. Before arriving in Champaign, he had made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

And Illinois fans have a right to have expectations. Illinois has a decorated program history. The Illini have made 20 trips to the NCAA Tournament, won 17 league titles, and made five Final Fours. That’s not Duke or Kentucky, but it’s still pretty damn impressive. The hope was Underwood could arrive and get the Illini back among the nation’s elites.

But despite the pedigree, Underwood hasn’t been able to deliver so far. The team stumbled to a 14-18 record in his first season with the program and followed that up with a 12-21 performance last season. Perhaps the most disappointing part of it was the team’s fall toward the end of the season. After winning five of six in January and February, Illinois couldn’t deliver late, losing six of the team’s final eight games. Outside of wins over an underwhelming Northwestern squad, Illinois accomplished nothing on the court after Valentine’s Day.

For a program trying to turn the page on its recent struggles, it’s hard to see those as encouraging signs. No two rebuilds are the same, but the clock is officially ticking now for Underwood and his staff. While a rough first year or two can be overlooked, fans aren’t going to simply overlook three lost seasons. And that’s why this season is so important for the program. The Illini need to make a mark.

The good news is that there are some pieces to build around. Even if they didn’t all come together last season, Illinois has a talented point guard in Ayo Dosunmu, one of the league’s better big men in Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and some talented young prospects, including a top 50 incoming recruit in Kofi Cockburn. From a talent perspective, Illinois is actually one of the more loaded teams in the league.

But can Illinois overcome its recent struggles and finally break through? Let’s take a look at this year’s Illini.

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 Tristen Kissack of The Champaign Room breaking down Illinois’ roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 12-21 (7-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #84
  • NET Rating: #105
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Every general statistical measure out there will tell you that Illinois was a mediocre to bad team last season. The Illini finished well below .500, finished outside the top 80 on KenPom, and weren’t even in the top 100 in the NET ratings. If you’re putting together stats like that, it’s going to be hard to argue you’re anything better than an afterthought.

But those general measures don’t tell the entire story about last year’s Illini. That’s because the team moved like a wave during last season, rising up and down. The team would drop five painful games and follow that up with a marquee win or two. The team had more bad than good, but it was a lot closer to a Jekyll and Hyde personality than your typical unit that put together a 12-21 record.

And if you don’t believe me, let’s just look at the team’s six-game stretch between January 26th and February 14th. The Illini went 5-1 against this slate, with the wins bolded:

  • 1/26 - vs Maryland (neutral)
  • 1/30 - at Minnesota
  • 2/2 - Nebraska
  • 2/5 - Michigan State
  • 2/9 - Rutgers
  • 2/14 - at Ohio State

Four of those teams made the NCAA Tournament and won at least a game, five finished the season ranked 47th or higher on KenPom, and that run also included a win over Michigan State, who ended up making the Final Four at season’s end. Yes, only one of those wins came in a road game and Illinois got lucky to avoid a loss to Rutgers, but that’s an incredible run for a team that ended up finishing the season well below .500.

If you don’t believe me, then think about this. If you use TRank’s ratings and limit the data set to games between January 26th and February 14th of last season, Illinois comes out to 23rd nationally, even out performing teams like Michigan and Michigan State during that stretch. And even if we acknowledge that we’re manipulating stats, we’re not talking about a week or two of games. That’s nearly a month of games where Illinois was playing like a team in the top 25. It’s exceedingly rare to see that from a team who wasn’t even in at-large NIT consideration by March.

But even if we saw the potential, we also the struggles as well. Illinois opened the season at 1-4 overall and dropped to 2-7 in what seemed like the blink of the eye. Many of the losses came against solid opponents, but it was a horrendous start that erased nearly all hope for the season before it had even really started. In fact, Illinois didn’t even score a win against a top 75 KenPom opponent until January 16th.

Illinois rebounded with some nice wins thereafter, but overcoming a start like that is nearly impossible.

So, what should we takeaway from all this? While Illinois played well for segments, it obviously had some issues as well. For me, this implies that Illinois had enough talent to compete with top level opponents, but lacked the depth, experience, and consistency to be in serious postseason and Big Ten contention. The swings between good and bad, close losses, and struggles away from home suggest a team that lacked the consistency and extra gear. For instance, that 2-7 start to the season included five losses by 10 points or less and six losses away from home.

And when one considers that Illinois finished 311th nationally in KenPom’s experience rating, those struggles make sense. While experience isn’t what it used to be in college basketball, it’s still something that goes hand-in-hand with consistency. Illinois probably pulls out a few of those games if they have a few more players with more games under their belt. Enough to make the NCAAs? Probably not, but maybe enough to get in NIT contention.

The team’s highlights to the season were the wins over Maryland and Michigan State noted above. The sweet over rival Northwestern was also a nice boost for the fan base. Low points of the season were the home losses to Florida Atlantic and Georgetown. The season’s closing stretch of six losses in eight games was also rough.

Individual statistical leaders were Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier. Bezhanishvili led the team in rebounds, blocks, and usage. Dosunmu led the team in points, assists, and win shares. Frazier led the team in steals.

2. Offseason Exits

When the season ended, it was anyone’s guess as to how hard Illinois’ roster would get hit with offseason attrition. Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili both had the option to explore pro options and many of the team’s other players were in a situation were a transfer seemed like a potential option. Nobody can accurately predict transfers in college basketball, but there are warning signs and Illinois had at least some of them.

But all told, Illinois actually got off pretty light. Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili opted to return to school for their sophomore seasons and the team lost no key pieces on the transfer market. All told, the departures came from Drew Cayce, Adonis De La Rosa, Anthony Higgs, Aaron Jordan, and Samba Kane. In a world where rosters turn over faster than ever, that’s not exactly a massive set of departures.

De La Rosa and Jordan are certainly the most significant departures of the group. Jordan started 31 games for the Illini last season and averaged 8.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He also was one of the team’s better three-point shooters, hitting 41.5 percent from deep. Considering that Illinois was a mediocre team from three last season, that’s nothing to overlook. De La Rosa was never a massive contributor, but was a rotational piece early and gave Bezhanishvili some time to get acclimated last season. He averaged 8.8 minutes per game by season’s end.

The remaining three departures really didn’t contribute much at all last season. Cayce and Kane barely topped 100 minutes for the entire season and Higgs missed the year due to a foot injury. If anything, these are just more losses of potential down the road. Higgs and Kane did arrive with some excitement, so seeing them depart without contributing in any meaningful way is disappointing.

No matter how you slice this situation, these departures really aren’t that substantial. Illinois is basically losing one player in Jordan. And while important, there’s little debating that his contributions were significantly behind players like Dosunmu and Frazier. There just isn’t a whole lot leaving Champaign this offseason.

3. New Additions

This season, the Illini will be adding four new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Kofi Cockburn, and Jermaine Hamlin. According to 247Sports, Cockburn is a four-star prospect and Bosmans-Verdonk and Hamlin are unrated. Bosmans-Verdonk is listed as a power forward, and Cockburn and Hamlin are listed as centers.

Cockburn is easily the player receiving the most attention coming into this season. He is listed at 6-foot-10 and 290 pounds and is expected to be a force down low. He’s ranked 45th nationally by 247Sports and as the second-best player out of the state of Virginia. If this was a generic team, Cockburn would easily be slated in as a likely starter for this season. However, we’ll have to see how he fits with Bezhanishvili. Either way, he’s going to play quite a bit.

The other two prospects arrive with less fanfare, but should offer the team quite a bit of size on the wing and upfront. Bosmans-Verdonk arrives at 6-foot-8 and Hamlin is listed at 6-foot-10. It seems reasonable to think that one, if not both, will see some serious time at the four this season with Jordan graduating. The question, again, will be how they fit with Bezhanishvili and Cockburn. There are only so many minutes to go around. It should be interesting to watch.

Illinois will also be adding transfers in Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson. Grandison transfers in from Holy Cross after starting 33 games as a sophomore. He had a pretty high usage rate and did a good job avoiding turnovers with the Crusaders.

Hutcherson played two seasons at Wesleyan, a Div. III school in Middletown, Connecticut and should be able to contribute in the backcourt. However, both transfers will have to sit out the upcoming season due to NCAA transfer rules. We’ll check in on them again before the 2020-’21 season.

All told, Illinois is adding a really nice group of additions this offseason. If Cockburn can be a quality early starter and one of the other two freshmen can be a rotational piece, Illinois could have a really special season.

4. Points of Optimism

With so many quality pieces returning to Champaign, there’s a lot to be excited about with regard to this team. The roster has top-end star potential, depth at a variety of positions, and enough experience to feel comfortable about that talent translating into production early in the season. Add with what figures to be a weaker Big Ten, it’s easy to get optimistic about this team moving forward.

We will talk about some of the team’s question marks below, but the potential for star production on this roster is the clear thing dividing this roster and the program’s recent underachieving units. This team has two players capable of serious All-Big Ten consideration. And not just generic honorable mention All-Big Ten status. I am talking about play that’s good enough to take over a game on just about any given night. Maybe not against a team like Michigan State, but play that can get the Illini a win over your average opponent. The two standouts, of course, are Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili.

I write this on a yearly basis in these previews, but I feel many overlook how important star power is to fielding a good Big Ten team. If you don’t believe me, go back and look at the All-Big Ten selections and where their respective teams finish.

It isn’t rocket science to suggest the teams with the best players win the most, but sometimes, you’d be shocked at how well it lines up like that. You need a guy who can carry you when things get tough. When your team is having an off night, a guy who can simply “go off” on an opponent is immensely valuable.

Dosunmu was a monster last season, averaging 13.8 points and 3.3 assists per game with a 102.7 offensive rating after taking 25.2 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor. Bezhanishvili wasn’t quite as dominant, but was really efficient with a 57 percent true shooting percentage and a 3.4 blocking rate. Dosunmu earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors and both were two of the league’s better freshmen last season. Trent Frazier also in the discussion as one of the better players in the league and is back for another season.

Illinois also has depth around this core. Andres Feliz and Da’Monte Williams are back in the backcourt, Kipper Nichols returns on the wing, and the program is adding major talent upfront in Kofi Cockburn. Gone are the days of Illinois having a single star and no role players, or a group of decent players with no alpha dog. It’s also hard to see more than one true freshman starting this year, which is a good sign.

And it’s also important to reiterate how close Illinois was last season. The 12-21 record and 84th rating on KenPom imply this team was pretty bad, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as those overall measures. The Illini did some major damage in league play last season and with a little improvement here or there, could do a lot more. And with so many key players returning, that improvement doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Overall, there are some major reasons to think Illinois could be in a position to take a major step forward this season. The Illini have a really talented core and some key role players around them. If a few of those question marks flip the right way, Illinois could really make some noise.

5. Points of Concern

Even if Illinois seems more poised for a breakout than anytime in recent memory, there are still some major concerns about this group heading into next season. More specifically, fans have to wonder whether a roster that’s never done it before can get the job done and whether the team can answer some of its roster issues in a positive way.

Let’s begin with the obvious. Some of this will sound repetitive, but it needs to be mentioned here. Illinois has struggled pretty mightily over the last few years. This program lacks a winning culture and hasn’t even made it to the NCAA Tournament since 2013. The past doesn’t rule the present, but it’s generally a pretty good place to start when predicting a new season. Without something significant shaking things up like a coaching change or roster turnover, why would anyone predict that things are going to change?

And generally speaking, that’s the situation for this Illinois team. This is the same core of players from last season that finished well below .500 and outside of serious NCAA Tournament consideration. Now, they’re trying to improve. Yes, some of the players were young. And yes, they are adding a few new pieces. But this is generally the same ingredients and Underwood and his staff are trying to figure out a way to make a better dish out of it.

It’s also worth mentioning the fact that Illinois is attempting one of the hardest climbs this season. The Illini are trying to transition from a Big Ten upstart that “plays hard” into a legitimately relevant team. Illinois will no longer get credit for taking people to overtime or keeping things close on the road. The goal will be winning. And while that might seem simple-minded, it’s not. Teams get stuck in this spot every year and it’s not easy to get past it.

Illinois also has the challenge of trying to overcome a few roster question marks. Dosunmu, Frazier, and Bezhanishvili should lock down starting spots, but there are questions around them. Can the team find frontcourt depth behind Bezhanishvili? Will Nichols finally find some consistency? And who will provide depth in the backcourt? Illinois has the pieces to answer some of these challenges, but it’s far from a guarantee.

The biggest question, though, may actually come with regard to the team’s star players.

Despite showing some positive signs in the 2018-’19 season, there’s little telling how players like Dosunmu, Frazier, and Bezhanishvili will progress this time around. Even if you’re optimistic about their long-term potential, we’ve seen numerous players have a productive season or two and never grow from there. Even if the rest of the roster improves around them, Illinois will hinge on these three players. If they produce, Illinois could be in for a great season, but if not, things could go sideways once again.

The overall takeaway here should be clear. Even if there’s promise to this Illinois team, there’s still a big step for the program to take to go from a team below .500 in conference play to a real nationally relevant team. The Illini have been trapped on an island for much of the last decade and while the team finally has a canoe and some paddles, we don’t know if it’s going to hold water just yet.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there was some uncertainty about who would be the team’s best player. Macolm Hill was gone the team wasn’t especially loaded on paper. I ended up going with Frazier over Dosunmu, but primarily by default due to Frazier’s experience:

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.

While I didn’t get it right with my Frazier pick, I think the sentiment was spot on. Dosunmu was the guy with upside, but was the unproven recruit. He ended up hitting the ground running and finished as the team’s top player. The only player who didn’t get mentioned that probably should have been was Bezhanishvili.

This time around, Dosunmu is the easy pick. He’s a potential first round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and has an impressive skillset. He can get teammates involved and is tremendously athletic. With a little more polish, he has a genuine chance to be an All-Big Ten first team player next season. It’s hard to see him passing Cassius Winston for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, but there aren’t any players out there who have a better route to runner-up in the league at the moment. Dosunmu legitimately has that much talent.

The other contenders will likely be Frazier and Bezhanishvili. Both have at least a year of experience under their belts and have shown some really encouraging signs so far. Neither of them have that combination of elite upside and proven contributions like Dosunmu, though, which is why they are a tad lower. Another wildcard is Cockburn, who arrives as a top 50 prospect nationally and should get an opportunity to contribute early.

Dosunmu is your best bet here, but don’t underestimate some of the team’s other players. And that should be a good sign for Illini fans heading into this season.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Lewis (Ex.)
  • 11/5 - Nicholls State
  • 11/8 - at Grand Canyon
  • 11/10 - at Arizona
  • 11/18 - Hawaii
  • 11/20 - The Citadel
  • 11/23 - Hampton
  • 11/26 - Lindenwood
  • 12/2 - Miami (FL)
  • 12/7 - at Maryland
  • 12/11 - Michigan
  • 12/14 - Old Dominion
  • 12/21 - Missouri (St. Louis, MO)
  • 12/29 - North Carolina A&T
  • 1/2 - at Michigan State
  • 1/5 - Purdue
  • 1/8 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/11 - Rutgers
  • 1/18 - Northwestern
  • 1/21 - at Purdue
  • 1/25 - at Michigan
  • 1/30 - Minnesota
  • 2/2 - at Iowa
  • 2/7 - Maryland
  • 2/11 - Michigan State
  • 2/15 - at Rutgers
  • 2/18 - at Penn State
  • 2/24 - Nebraska
  • 2/27 - at Northwestern
  • 3/1 - Indiana
  • 3/4 - at Ohio State
  • 3/8 - Iowa

The Illini enter this season with one of the more intriguing slates of anyone in the Big Ten. Not only because it features a number of high-profile games, but also because so many of the team’s top non-con opponents enter the season with unknowns. While the schedule won’t be easy, this thing could range between manageable and extremely difficult depending on how a few teams turn out.

Non-conference play will largely be highlighted by three matchups. The team’s trip out west to face Arizona in mid-November, the game against Miami (FL) in December, and the annual matchup against Missouri just before Christmas. All three matchups should provide Illinois with an opportunity to score a quality win on the national stage.

However, these three games underline what was highlighted in the intro of this section. Arizona, Miami (FL), and Missouri are largely unknowns coming into this season. To start, two of the three had losing records last season and the lone team with a winning record (Arizona) came in at just 17-15 overall. And while the three are projected to be better this season, it’s anyone’s guess what they turn into. Illinois could be looking at three NCAA Tournament opponents here, or three that miss the NIT. Obviously, that’s going to have a huge impact on how this schedule is evaluated later on.

There aren’t a ton of surprises in Big Ten play, but it’s worth noting how difficult things could be out of the gate for the Illini. The team’s opening five conference games are as follows:

  • 12/7 - at Maryland
  • 12/11 - Michigan
  • 1/2 - at Michigan State
  • 1/5 - Purdue
  • 1/8 - at Wisconsin

All five teams made the NCAA Tournament last season, four made the Round of 32, and three advanced to the Sweet 16. While last season isn’t a perfect measure for this year, it’s pretty easy to see how hard things will be right out of the gate, especially considering that three of these games will come on the road.

The one nice thing about getting so many tough teams early is that Illinois should have an opportunity to build momentum heading into the postseason. Just look at the team’s final seven regular season games:

  • 2/15 - at Rutgers
  • 2/18 - at Penn State
  • 2/24 - Nebraska
  • 2/27 - at Northwestern
  • 3/1 - Indiana
  • 3/4 - at Ohio State
  • 3/8 - Iowa

Expecting a 7-0 performance there is probably a bit much, especially with a road game at Ohio State, but it’s not exactly a ridiculous assertion. The only teams that made the NCAA Tournament of that group are Iowa and Ohio State and the Hawkeyes could be setup for a major step back this season. And teams like Nebraska and Northwestern could be in for some rough seasons, if things don’t go well. A big run through those games could really put the Illini in good position for the postseason.

Given how uncertain many of Illinois’ key non-conference opponents are coming into this season, it’s hard to get a grasp on exactly how things could go with this slate. However, Illinois has a serious chance to put together an impressive non-conference record and build momentum toward the end of the season. That alone has to get fans excited.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Trent Frazier (Sr.) - 90%
  • SG: Da’Monte Williams (Jr.) - 55%
  • SF: Ayo Dosunmu (So.) - 95%
  • PF: Kipper Nichols (Rs. Sr.) - 55%
  • C: Giorgi Bezhanishvili (So.) - 95%

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

This has probably come through by now, but Illinois has a pretty talented roster coming into this season. Multiple players with legitimate shots at All-Big Ten status and one has serious NBA Draft potential. Add in a talented 2019 recruiting class and a few intriguing returners and there’s a lot to like here. Perhaps the lone challenge is that a lot of these pieces are not natural fits with one another. That’s going to make the team’s lineup really funky.

In the backcourt, Illinois has four players that could all end up starting at some point in the season. Frazier and Dosunmu are starting locks, but Dosunmu could move around depending on who Underwood wants to play with him. The other two options are Da’Monte Williams and Andres Feliz. Both have plenty of experience and will play serious minutes this season. Again, it’s going to depend on who’s hot and what Underwood wants to do upfront.

My guess here is that Williams edges out Feliz and Underwood decides to play three guards in the lineup early. Frazier and Dosunmu are going to start, but Underwood is going to have the option to play a bigger lineup. Perhaps a lot of this ends up going opponent specific. That’s always a nice advantage to have going into the season.

The wing group is the biggest question mark on this team. Illinois has Kipper Nichols and a handful of players who have never played significant minutes at the college level, including two freshmen. The best case scenario here is that Nichols improves his consistency and one (if not both) of the true freshmen (Bosmans-Verdonk or Hamlin) arrive and are ready to contribute early. That would really make this lineup look scary.

More realistically, Illinois is probably going to have to ride is out with Nichols and his inconsistency early on and hope that one of the freshmen can get it together by Big Ten play. It’s also unlikely, but Illinois could toy with the concept of sliding Bezhanishvili to the four for segments if Cockburn really hits the ground running. That could minimize some of the team’s depth issues on the wing. This wouldn’t be a serious option long-term, but it could be something deployed for a few minutes here or there. Again, don’t expect it though.

Things look a lot more predictable upfront. Bezhanishvili figures to lock down the starting spot and Cockburn should provide relief off the bench. Bezhanishvili averaged 26 minutes a game last year, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Cockburn to hit the floor, especially if Bezhanishvili is in foul trouble. This should be one of the better frontcourts in the Big Ten.

Illinois enters this season in that all too familiar place of a team with a really nice array of pieces that don’t necessarily fit together perfectly. The Illini figure to have two really good guards, two really good big men, and a handful of players that may or may not be ready to be starters on a competitive team. Experience should dominate early, but fans need to hope the youth emerges as the season continues.

9. Team Perspective From Tristen Kissack of The Champaign Room

“Expectations are high for the Illini, even after coming off of one of the worst seasons in school history. In fact, it was THE worst season for an Illinois team ever. But, all that seems to be in the rear view mirror now as talks of an NCAA Tournament berth have riddled through Illini nation. Illinois hasn’t cracked the tournament since John Groce’s first season as head coach all the way back in 2013.

The roster is headlined by potential lottery pick Ayo Dosunmu, two-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten Trent Frazier, and America’s favorite player Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Four-star freshman and Oak Hill Academy product Kofi Cockburn should see the floor quite a bit and poses great size for a big at 7-foot, 290 pounds. For me, the biggest question marks are with the wing group. Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones are a pair of sophomores that showed promise at times last year, but never showed any sort of consistent development. If one of these two figures it out and can contribute a productive and efficient 25 minutes a game, the Illini could very well be dancing this March.” - Tristen Kissack

10. Overall Season Outlook

It’s been quite a ride for Illinois over the last decade. Every step forward has been followed by a fall down the stairs. As a result, the program has struggled to stay relevant nationally. Major recruits have failed to live up to the hype, key players have transferred out at inconvenient times, and injuries have plagued even the better rosters.

But things finally seem like they’re about to change this time around. Illinois has its coach in Underwood, a potential star in Dosunmu, and a handful of talented options around him. If Underwood and his staff can simply find a way for the pieces to work together, the sky’s the limit with this team.

The question, though, is whether that hype will finally translate on the court. We’ve seen this story before. Illinois has had pieces over the last decade and hasn’t delivered. Is this finally the time? After all, much of this team is the same as last year’s group and that team finished well below .500 on the season. Fans certainly have to be tired of getting burned on high expectations after all these years.

My gut tells me that there will be hiccups with this team, but that the Illini will deliver when it matters most and end the NCAA Tournament drought. The Illini probably don’t have enough pieces to challenge for the league title, but should have more than enough to shake things up and have a shot at the second weekend in March. And after a decade of suffering, that would be music to fans’ ears.

Big Ten Prediction: 5th Place