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2020-’21 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 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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After missing the NCAA Tournament in six straight season and suffering from inconsistent play for far longer, things finally came together for the Illinois Fighting Illini last year. The team finally had the talent, depth, and star power to do some real damage in March. By time the Big Ten Tournament started, Illinois had a 21-10 overall record and seemed destined for something more in the postseason.

It finally seemed like the heartbreak would come to an end.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

For better or worse, we’ll never know what Illinois would have accomplished last March. We’ll never know whether Ayo Dosunmu or Kofi Cockburn could have delivered when it counted most, whether Brad Underwood could get his guys ready for a big game in March, or if players like Kipper Nichols could see it all come together to end their career. It was a tremendously disappointing experience for coaches, players, and fans. It was also particularly disappointing for players like Dosunmu and Cockburn, who were hoping to use great performances in the NCAA Tournament to launch professional careers.

The sudden cancellation of the season also left many questions about the program moving forward. And while most of these were about things bigger and more important than basketball, some were about how the team would look next season. The biggest question, of course, was obvious: Would Dosunmu and Cockburn try their shot at the next level, or would they run it back one more time?

And fortunately, fans got good news on that front, as Dosunmu and Cockburn surprisingly announced their returns this offseason.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, Illinois won’t look exactly like it did last year, but it shouldn’t look substantially different either. Dosunmu and Cockburn will lead the team and experienced players like Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili will fill out the lineup. But Illinois might have even a bit more firepower this year, with key recruits like Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller arriving on campus. If either is ready to go, Illinois could be in for quite a season.

And with that, 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. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 21-10 (13-7)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #30
  • NET Rating: #39
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

Because of the cancellations last March, evaluating last season is pretty difficult. It’s like evaluating dinner at a five-star restaurant without the main dish. We have an idea about how things were going, but that’s really all it is. We’ve seen elite teams face plant in March and underwhelming ones go on incredible postseason runs, negating their early season struggles. So, take everything written here about last season with a grain (more like a shaker) of salt. We just can’t say with certainty how things would have finished.

With that said, Illinois put together a really nice campaign last season. The team finished 21-10 overall, 13-7 in Big Ten play, and played against a brutal slate, finishing 25th nationally in strength of schedule. Much of that slate came from a ridiculously (and historically) deep Big Ten last season. I mean, just look at the team’s slate (per KenPom) in January:

  • 1/2 - at No. 7 Michigan State
  • 1/5 - No. 24 Purdue
  • 1/8 - at No. 22 Wisconsin
  • 1/11 - No. 28 Rutgers
  • 1/18 - No. 132 Northwestern
  • 1/21 - at No. 24 Purdue
  • 1/25 - at No. 16 Michigan
  • 1/30 - No. 27 Minnesota

That’s an eight-game slate featuring seven teams ranked 28th or higher on KenPom, two games against top 20 opponents, and four road games. Heck, even the “easy” game of the eight came in a matchup against arch-rival Northwestern. The fact Illinois went 7-1 against that slate says a lot about the team last season.

But even if most of the season went well for Illinois, there were a few hiccups. The team was inconsistent early on and struggled during a four-game skid in early February, which kept the Illini from sharing a part of the Big Ten regular season title. The matchups against Maryland and Michigan State also stand out as rough spots, as the Illini were a combined 0-4 against those two last season. It leaves some room for improvement this time around.

The highlights of the season came in the season sweeps against Michigan and Purdue, the road win against Wisconsin, and the win over Iowa to close out the year. The losses to Miami (FL) and Missouri were certainly low points. And the struggles in February were also disappointing portions of an otherwise successful campaign.

Individual statistical leaders were Kofi Cockburn, Ayo Dosunmu, and Trent Frazier. Cockburn led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. Dosunmu led the team in minutes, points, and assists. Frazier led the team in steals.

2. Offseason Exits

For a team that went 21-10 overall, finished 30th nationally on KenPom, and was one game away from winning the Big Ten, one would expect some sizable offseason attrition. In today’s era of college basketball, it’s exceedingly rare for a successful team with proven options (serious NBA prospects at that) to return most of its lineup, but that’s exactly what Illinois is prepared to do this season.

All told, Illinois is losing Andres Feliz, Alan Griffin, Tevian Jones, Kipper Nichols, and Samson Oladimeji this offseason. And while that’s a handful of player, it’s not a ton of on-court contributions. Feliz, Griffin, and Nichols were featured in the rotation, but none of those three are irreplaceable. And Jones and Oladimeji contributed even less, combining for less than 100 minutes last season. Again, pretty light departures for a team as successful as Illinois was last season.

The biggest loss from a statistical perspective is Feliz. He averaged 26.8 minutes per game last season and did a great job of initiating the offense. He finished with a 111.9 offensive rating, which was one of the higher usage rates on the team. Additionally, Feliz was arguably the best passer on the roster and played key minutes in many of the team’s biggest wins last season, finishing with 15 points in the road win over Michigan, 17 points in the win over Minnesota, and double-digits in wins over teams like Indiana and Iowa. Feliz finished third on the team in total win shares.

Griffin and Nichols will also leave some voids in the rotation, but nothing insurmountable. For instance, while Griffin was efficient, he played less than half of the team’s minutes. Nichols also had pretty solid overall numbers, but his role faded substantially during the season. In fact, Nichols played five minutes or less in half of his final eight games with the Illini. A big part of his regression resulted from his underwhelming 10.5 percent from three-point range. Nichols provided experience and depth, but it’s hard to view his departure as a devastating one for the Illini. And of course, Oladimeji’s departure will have very little impact on the floor, even if he was a valuable team member elsewhere.

Losing a starter and two bench players shouldn’t be overlooked, but it’s hard to get too panicked about it when you return two NBA prospects in Dosunmu and Cockburn and a bunch of talent around them. Illinois remains in great shape heading into next season, in large part because the team lost so little this offseason.

3. New Additions

This season, the Illini will be adding four new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Andre Curbelo, Coleman Hawkins, Brandon Lieb, and Adam Miller. According to 247Sports, Curbelo and Miller are four-star prospects and Hawkins and Lieb is a three-star. The site also lists Curbelo as a point guard, Miller as a shooting guard, Hawkins as a power forward, and Lieb as a center.

Miller is easily the player receiving the most attention coming into this season. He is listed at 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds and is rated 33rd nationally and as the second-best player in Illinois in the 2020 class. Most expect Miller to be a huge boost to the team’s long range shooting and he also has enough athleticism to contribute on both sides of the floor. He is more than capable of starting from day one, especially if he can hit the ground running.

The other two prospects to keep an eye on are Curbelo and Hawkins. Curbelo is a top 50 prospect and is expected to provide depth behind Trent Frazier, Miller, and Dosunmu this season. Expect him to play early and often. Hawkins is rated much lower (156th nationally), but has enough length and size at 6-foot-10 and 195 pounds to at least get a look as a reserve option upfront. It seems unlikely he can beat Da’Monte Williams on the wing, but with Griffin and Nichols gone, there are some reserve minutes available. Likewise, expect Lieb to take a year or two to get going.

The transfers are Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson. Grandison comes in from Holy Cross, where he started 33 games as a sophomore and averaged 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. Hutcherson played two seasons at Wesleyan, a Div. III school in Middletown, Connecticut and should be able to contribute in the backcourt. Both sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Assuming they can beat out the freshmen, expect to see them significantly in reserve roles.

All told, this is a really talented group coming in for Illinois. And because the team lost so few pieces this offseason, they won’t have to do a ton early on. That’s a great spot for the program to be in after nearly a decade a struggles.

4. Points of Optimism

Anytime a team comes within a game of winning the Big Ten title and returns its core, there’s going to be a lot of optimism about the program. And that’s exactly what happened for the Illini this offseason. As a result, Illinois enters this season with plenty of hope and more than enough pieces to reach its lofty preseason goals. Unlike much of the last decade, fans enter this year thinking about championships and magic in March. And unlike in past years, their dreams aren’t misguided. This team has enough to get it done.

The surprising offseason return of Dosunmu and Cockburn is the biggest thing leading this optimism. Fans thought they had a decent chance at bringing one of the two back, but few expected both back in Champaign this season. But the unexpected happened after last year’s shortened season and a bizarre NBA Draft process unfolded. Having two players as talented as Dosunmu and Cockburn on the roster is extremely significant and drastically changes the team’s regular season and postseason outlook.

During last season, Dosunmu was arguably Illinois’ best player, averaging an impressive 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. And Cockburn stood out as a freshman as well, finishing with a 110.4 offensive rating and fourth in the league in both offensive rebounding rate and ability to get to the free throw line offensively. Cockburn also averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and finished the season in the top five in free throw and offensive rebounding rate in the league. These were nationally relevant players.

And starting a roster with two pieces that good isn’t something you see very often. Teams might bring back one elite player or maybe even three or four quality starters, but returning two serious NBA prospects in a single year? That’s absolutely going to turn some heads and takes a ton of pressure off everyone else on the roster. This is a team that knows who it’s turning to in the big moments. Unlike many other teams, Illinois will be no season long search for a star or fall flat in big moments. They’re relying on proven options.

The experience elsewhere on the roster is also impressive. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams return for their senior seasons after starting for the Illini last season. Illinois also has a reliable depth option in Giorgi Bezhanishvili in the frontcourt as well. For a normal team, Frazier and Williams would likely be impact-level players. However, that’s not the case here with Dosunmu and Cockburn on the roster. And that’s a great spot for this team to be in, especially with a talented 2020 class joining the fold as well. Underwood and his staff will have a litany of options.

All of that talent should put Illinois in position for a Big Ten title and even bigger accomplishments in the postseason. Much of the lineup will look the same as last year, with the exception of the potential role of freshman Adam Miller. The young guard could provide the team a big boost from three-point range. Altogether, Illinois should remain a force on the boards, solid defensively, and a consistent threat in the paint.

5. Points of Concern

With so many proven players returning to campus this season, there aren’t a lot of obvious spots to critique for the Illini. The team has a proven backcourt, one of the league’s best big men, and a handful of depth pieces and incoming talent that should fill out of the lineup. The roster and program are in good shape right now.

Perhaps the team’s biggest concern is actually a byproduct of having so many proven pieces, primarily a concern about who gets what possessions and when. There are a lot of mouths to feed for the Illini this season. You have two players who will be working to boost their NBA profiles, two seniors who will expect opportunities in Frazier and Williams, and other options like Giorgi and Miller as well. Illinois had a good team dynamic last season, but who knows how all these pieces are going to fit together this time around. It’s something Underwood will have to keep an eye on.

The team’s three-point shooting also remains a concern. Illinois finished 310th nationally in three-point percentage last season and 324th in percentage of team points off three-pointers. If the Illini are going to reach the team’s goals this season, it’s going to need to improve there. The good news is Miller arrives as a highly regarded outside shooter. A lot of pressure will be on him to elevate the team’s play there this season.

Moreover, Illinois also needs to replace one starter in its lineup. It has a handful of decent options, but don’t just assume Illinois will figure things out from day one. Once again, Miller looks to be the guy to watch there.

6. Top Player

Illinois enters this season without a “best player” on its roster and for good reason. The team has two legitimate stars in Cockburn and Dosunmu and it’s hard to separate the two in any clear way. Cockburn is a dominant force down low and one of the best rebounders in the league. Meanwhile, Dosunmu is a dynamic scorer who can kill opponents in the lane and more than holds his own on the defensive side of the floor as well. Both were serious NBA prospects and surprisingly decided to return to school anyway.

It’s anyone’s guess who will be better between the two. Both are good enough to make the All-Big Ten first team and probably some All-American teams as well. Most teams would be thrilled to have one player on this level, but Illinois is fortunate enough to have two. And while Dosunmu was probably a hair ahead last season, Cockburn has a lot of upside. After all, he was only a freshman last year.

Perhaps the more interesting discussion for Illinois is who will be the team’s third best player. Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier return for their senior seasons, Giorgi Bezhanishvili should be an intriguing option down low yet again, and Illinois is also adding a really talented group of newcomers, including a major prospect in Adam Miller. It’s a great mix of options to accompany two proven stars in Cockburn and Dosunmu.

My guess is Cockburn and Dosunmu will remain the team’s two best players and trade off on given nights. Opponents may plan for one and get roasted by the other. It’s a two-headed monster few teams will be able to slow down this season. Both should be in serious All-Big Ten consideration by season’s end. After them, it should be an interesting mix. Frazier is probably the safest bet to contribute, but Miller is the guy with upside. Expect Miller to turn a lot of heads this season.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/8 - at Duke
  • TBA - Unknown
  • TBA - Northwestern
  • TBA - at Northwestern

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Illinois’ schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we don’t know much about the schedule at the moment. In fact, the only game officially scheduled right now is the team’s road trip to Duke in early December as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This makes it pretty hard to give many thoughts on the slate.

However, we do have some general ideas on how things might look this season. Illinois will have a reduced non-conference slate and we know the team will get Northwestern twice during league play. We also know the arenas will almost certainly have reduced capacity, if anyone is able to attend at all. That’s going to make for a bizarre experience in Big Ten play, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

As for Illinois, expect a finish near the top of the Big Ten. And that battle against Duke is going to be a fun one. It looks pretty even on paper.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Trent Frazier (Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Adam Miller (Fr.) - 65%
  • SF: Ayo Dosunmu (Jr.) - 95%
  • PF: Da’Monte Williams (Sr.) - 80%
  • C: Kofi Cockburn (So.) - 95%

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

This is probably one of the easiest sections to write for any of this year’s Big Ten previews. Illinois enters this season with four returning starters and the team adds a top 35 prospect who seems destined to fill the final spot. And that’s a great thing for Illini fans. This lineup is stacked with talent and proven contributors. This isn’t a case of players getting positions by default. These are great options for a nationally relevant team.

In the backcourt, expect Frazier to (once again) lock down things at the point. He only averaged 9.1 points and 2.2 rebounds per game last season, but he was a consistent complimentary piece. He avoided turnovers, converted shots at the free throw line, and avoided eating up too many possessions in the process. Frazier’s going to get a lot of minutes once again. Expect freshmen Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller to get a chance to grab some of the reserve minutes behind him.

Dosunmu will also start in the backcourt. The lone question will be about who starts alongside him. My guess is Miller, who has the athletic profile to contribute early and should bring something to the team (shooting) few other players on the roster naturally possess. And the nice thing for Illinois is that Dosunmu and Miller can split minutes as needed. For instance, Dosunmu can shift down to the two when Miller needs a break. That should give Underwood more than enough flexibility this season.

The four spot will also likely be occupied by Williams once again. He wasn’t a great shooter last season, but rebounded and defended well enough to stay on the court. Fans will be hoping he can become a better shooter at the free throw line and a little more efficient offensively. Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson are also potential depth options at the two, three, and four spots. Both have experience as transfers and can play multiple positions. However, with so many proven options (excluding Miller) ahead of them, it’s hard to see either getting massive time. Expect somewhere around 5 to 15 minutes for each early on.

The center spot is going to be dominated by Cockburn. He’s an outstanding player and should be even more consistent as a sophomore. Bezhanishvili should come in behind him, offering a much different skill set off the bench. Nobody else should play here outside of insane foul trouble. But that’s a good spot to be in, considering the talent in the top two on the roster.

There’s no denying the talent and experience in this lineup. There are no obvious holes anywhere, barring some massive (and unexpected) regression. Illinois has two All-Big Ten caliber players and plenty around them, including a top 35 prospect, two seniors, and a few more upperclassmen. The big challenge will be finding clear and consistent roles for bench and complimentary players as the season continues.

9. Outside Perspective From Tristen Kissack of On The Champaign Room

“If last season didn’t get cut short due to COVID-19, this is a team that would’ve made some noise in its first big dance since 2013. All-Big Ten First Teamer Ayo Dosunmu and reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn tested the draft waters this offseason. Now, both are back, and the Illini are poised for a 2005-esque year. Mix in a top-20 incoming recruiting class, a few veteran role players and some intriguing transfers with potential, and you have the recipe for an exciting year.

Illinois ended the 2019-20 campaign with a 21-10 record and fourth in the conference at 13-7, its best Big Ten finish since 2006. Head coach Brad Underwood adapted to personnel, shifting away from an aggressive, three-quarter court defensive approach that invited turnovers to a more classic big-friendly style. That’s just what you do when you bring in a 7-foot, 290-pound freshman. I think you’ll see Underwood roll out a similar scheme this year on that side of the floor.

Now, the defense wasn’t anything spectacular. In fact, the only statistical categories it ranked among the top-35 in the country in were opponent free throws made and free throw attempts. What made last year’s team so successful, was its ability to rebound the basketball. The Illini took a lot of shots inside the arc and collected their misses to the tune of almost 13 offensive boards a game. (Thanks, Kofi.) They lose two of their top five scorers from last year in Andres Feliz (11 PPG) and Alan Griffin (8.9 PPG), but bring in more offensive firepower than they let go.

Four-star freshmen guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo should make immediate impacts this season. Miller, a two-time Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year and 2020 Illinois Mr. Basketball, averaged over 27 points a game and shot better than 42% from behind the arc as a senior. His deep ball ability is one area the Illini were sorely lacking in last year, and that alone might be enough for him to crack the starting lineup. Curbelo was the table-setter (16.7 PPG, 8.1 APG, 7.6 RPG) for one of the best high school teams in the country last year and should spell senior Trent Frazier off the bench. And then there’s the two transfer wings, Austin Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison, that should eat up a good chunk of minutes on the perimeter. Grandison is an import from Holy Cross that shot the ball at a 37% clip from three as a sophomore, and Hutcherson averaged 20 points per game and cashed in on over 40% of his attempts from deep as a sophomore at D-III Wesleyan University. The wing group is this team’s X-factor and will likely determine how far it can go. Illinois has to improve its numbers behind the arc to be a national title contender.

I expect a bounce-back year from Giorgi Bezhanishvili. He had to slide down out of his traditional role to make room for Kofi down low and struggled a bit with the transition. But the core of last year’s team returns and has been practicing together for over a year now, so I’m anticipating a better outing this time around. That being said, this is Dosunmu’s ship to steer. He’s the preseason All-American. He’s the one with lottery hopes. He’s the one that will have carried this team to a Final Four if it gets there. On multiple occasions last year, he proved that he can step up and make the shot when he needs to. He’s the best closer in college basketball, and he’s going to make an NBA GM very happy one day. But for now, Illini fans are counting on him to bring Illinois back to national relevance with a deep tournament run come March.” - Tristen Kissack

10. Overall Season Outlook

Since Underwood arrived on campus a few years ago, everything has been pointed in the right direction for the Illini. The program has gone from an afterthought in the Big Ten to a legitimate conference and national contender. And with so much talent returning, Illinois seems destined for a special run this year.

The biggest question will be whether the Illini can live up to the hype. Illinois will enter the season as one of the prime contenders to win the Big Ten and make a run at the Final Four. As such, it’s going to take quite an effort to meet expectations like that. Players like Cockburn and Dosunmu will have to live up to the hype and newcomers like Miller will have to make some noise. Everything is there to get the job done.

My gut suggests there will be a few ups and downs, but Illinois will remain near the top of the conference standings all season. And when Underwood finalizes the lineup, Illinois could very well be the best team in the Big Ten.

Big Ten Prediction: 1st Place