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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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 years of waiting, Illinois finally got what they’ve been waiting for. The Illini put together a thoroughly impressive campaign from start to finish, compiling a 24-7 overall record, winning the Big Ten Tournament, earning a one seed, and narrowly missing out on the Big Ten regular season title. The team also got historic performances from superstar guard Ayo Dosunmu and do-it-all big man Kofi Cockburn. It was easily the program’s most satisfying season since Dee Brown left campus 15 years ago.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a remarkable year.

Unfortunately, fans now have to put that season into the rear-view mirror.

And things could be considerably tougher this year.

While Illinois brings back some key pieces from last season, the roster looks more uncertain than last year’s group. Most notably, Dosunmu and Adam Miller are gone in the backcourt and Giorgi Bezhanishvili is gone in the frontcourt. That should leave some major questions for Brad Underwood and his new staff considering what those three brought to the table.Fortunately, Illinois brings back enough, especially with Andre Curbelo and Cockburn, to do some major damage.

But how far can Illinois go? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 24-7 (16-4)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #4
  • NET Rating: #4
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (Round of 32)

Last season was an exceptional one in Champaign. After years of inconsistency and underwhelming results, Illinois finally put everything together. The Illini went 24-7 overall against a brutally tough slate, won the Big Ten Tournament, nearly won the Big Ten regular season title, and earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Here are just a few notable statistics about last year’s group:

  • Seven wins against top 15 KenPom teams;
  • Eight wins against top 50 KenPom teams away from home;
  • Went 14-1 between January 17th and March 21st; and
  • All seven of the team’s losses came against top 75 KenPom teams.

What’s also notable about last year’s group was that all of these accomplishments followed a relatively slow start to the season. Illinois went 5-3 in its first eight games and was only 9-5 a few games into conference play. It takes quite a group to follow that up with a 14-1 run against a tough Big Ten slate. And that even gets more impressive when you consider the quality of competition, as 13 games of that 14-1 run came against top 80 opponents.

Unfortunately, the only real “sore spot” on the resume came at the end, when Illinois fell short against Loyola (Chicago) in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. It was a rough moment for Illinois, who was arguably the “hottest” team in the country (outside of Gonzaga) at that point. There’s no sugar coating it. Even if Loyola (Chicago) was underseeded by the Committee, it’s a game Illinois should have won. They were simply outplayed. It happens sometimes. But we can’t lose the forest for the trees. It was still a remarkable season.

The highlights of the season included the road win over Duke, the regular season sweeps of arch-rival Northwestern and Wisconsin, the road win over Michigan, and the Big Ten Tournament run. The lower points of the season were the losses to Missouri and Rutgers in December, the two home losses to Maryland and Ohio State, and the let down against Loyola (Chicago) in the NCAA Tournament.

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

2. Offseason Exits

Generally speaking, when a team hangs a banner and grabs a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, the next offseason is a rough one. Key players depart for the pros, others graduate, and assistants leave for bigger roles elsewhere. It’s a story as old as time and one intrinsically linked with college sports.

But that didn’t happen for Illinois this offseason. The team lost some contributors from last season, but got off relatively light, losing only three real contributors from last year’s squad. The departing players are Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayo Dosunmu, Zach Griffith, Jermaine Hamlin, Adam Miller, Edgar Padilla, and Tyler Underwood.

The notable departing player, of course, is Dosunmu. He was the team’s leader and, arguably, its best player last season as well. He finished the season on many All-American lists and ranked sixth nationally in KenPom’s individual player rankings. Dosunmu could connect from deep, initiated the offense, and was incredibly impressive in big moments, often scoring the team’s final basket or two. No single player will be able to replace his contributions next season. The team will simply have to hope to mitigate his departure.

The other departures are less notable. Bezhanishvili and Miller were both key contributors, but neither were stars. Bezhanishvili provided valuable depth behind Cockburn and Miller was a quality shooter from outside the arc who could help stress defenses. Bezhanishvili never started a game while Miller started most of the season and played just over 60 percent of the team’s minutes. Neither was of the irreplaceable variety. The other four players combined for 71 minutes all season. None were expected to contribute this fall.

3. New Additions

This season, the Illini will be adding three new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Luke Goode, Ramses Melendez, and Brandin Podziemski. According to 247Sports, all three are four-star prospects. The site lists Podziemski as a shooting guard and the other two as small forwards.

The recruit receiving the most attention in the class is Goode, who is highly regarded in the State of Indiana and a top 100 prospect nationally. However, all three recruits are rated similarly, ranging between 93rd and 107th nationally on 247Sports’ rankings. The good news for Illinois is all three will fit in similar roles on the wing, so Underwood and staff can allow them to compete and play the best player or two from the group. Dosunmu and Miller’s departures should open up some minutes here as well.

The transfers are Omar Payne and Alfonso Plummer. Both will be immediately eligible. Payne arrives from Florida and is listed at 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds. He was buried in a deep Gator frontcourt last season and played only 37.5 percent of the team’s minutes last season. Payne does most of his damage inside and is a decent defensive rebounder. Don’t expect him to stretch the floor. He will enter campus with underclassmen eligibility.

Plummer is the other transfer and arrives from Utah. He is expected to provide backcourt depth behind Curbelo and Frazier. And unlike Payne, he played major minutes at his last stop, playing nearly 70 percent of available minutes. He did much of his damage from deep, averaging 38.3 percent from three. He also led the team in percent of shots taken while on the floor. Expect him to see starting minutes this year with Illinois.

All told, this is a really solid group of newcomers. It’s rare you see a team adding five players who have a chance to play in the upcoming season, but Illinois did it this offseason. That should bode well for the team’s chances this year.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to be excited about for Illinois entering this season. While nothing is ever certain in college basketball, there are some serious reasons to believe in this group. The team returns the core of a team that went 24-7 last season and adds five dynamic new pieces. Everything about the roster and Underwood’s success in Champaign suggests this team will be in contention for the NCAA Tournament and much more.

Of course, any positivity about Illinois has to start with the return roster. The team returns three starters and five of its top seven in minutes played last season. That would be a great start for any squad, but even more so here because of the success Illinois had last year. This isn’t a team that missed the NIT or finished with a losing record. Illinois was a legitimate Final Four and national title contender and earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Returning five key players off a squad like that is impressive in today’s world of early departures and transfers.

We also can’t ignore the return of Cockburn, who was one of the Big Ten’s best players last season. He put up All-American numbers and finished seventh in KenPom’s player rankings. But for Hunter Dickinson’s return at Michigan, Cockburn would unquestionably be the best returner in the league—for the record, he might still be. Getting a player back will cover a lot of deficiencies and instantly makes Illinois a contender for big things this season. Curbelo also projects as another player with star potential. With more playing time now that Dosunmu is gone, he could be a sleeper for All-Big Ten status.

There’s also no denying the new additions could make a mark as well. All three freshmen could see rotational time and Plummer should be an instant impact contributor. And considering Illinois only lost three contributors from last year’s squad, those additions project pretty well to fill any holes in the lineup, even if one or two underachieve in their first seasons with the program.

5. Points of Concern

This section has to start with the elephant in the room: Dosunmu’s departure. Few players are as important as Dosunmu was for Illinois last season. He was the straw that stirred Illinois’ drink. Dosunmu initiated the offense, found open players, and converted in the team’s biggest moments. Even if Underwood and his staff keep rolling, it’s possible you won’t see another guard like that in Champaign in years. He was simply that good.

It’s hard to gauge how losing a player like that will impact a program. Sometimes, a newcomer or group of players step up to fill the void. Illinois fans are certainly hoping players like Curbelo and Frazier can do that here. However, we’ve also seen plenty of Big Ten teams nosedive after a key player leaves. Look at players like Yogi Ferrell and Cassius Winston. Their respective teams had noticeable declines after they left, even when other pieces returned. Even if we’ve seen Illinois succeed for a game or two without Dosunmu, we don’t necessarily know how things will go this year.

The other departures are also something to watch. It seems likely the newcomers can fill in for Miller, but filling in for Bezhanishvili could be tricky. Cockburn got into a decent amount of foul trouble last year, and Bezhanishvili helped keep Illinois rolling when he was on the bench. But with his departure, there’s no telling what lies behind Cockburn now. Transfer Payne and underclassmen Coleman Hawkins and Brandon Lieb project to fill in. However, none of these three are known commodities. Payne has the most experience, but he wasn’t exactly elite at Florida. At least one of these three is going to need to be serviceable to survive Big Ten play.

Underwood’s staff also went through its own transition this offseason. He lost a number of assistants that were vital in rebuilding Illinois over the last few years. While this is Underwood’s program, we can’t undersell their contributions or project a seamless transition. There seems to be enough stability in the program to prevent a collapse from a few assistant coaching changes. It’s just worth a note here as we enter the season.

6. Top Player

Illinois enters this season with a clear leader for its top player. Cockburn returns after an All-American campaign and figures to be in the Big Ten Player of the Year race from season’s tip. He is a dominant force inside, dominating the boards and finishing well. The only real holes in his game are turnovers and his perimeter game. And if he can make even modest improvements there, the sky’s the limit.

If anybody is going to challenge Cockburn on the roster, it’s probably going to be Curbelo. He played exceptionally in limiting time for Illinois last season and should have an expanded role this time around. Other dark horse candidates include Frazier, Williams, and true freshman Goode. However, Cockburn seems like the easy pick here.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/23 - St. Francis (Ill.) (Ex.)
  • 10/29 - Indiana (PA) (Ex.)
  • 11/9 - Jackson State
  • 11/12 - Arkansas State
  • 11/15 - at Marquette
  • 11/22 - Cincinnati (Kansas City, MO)
  • 11/23 - Arkansas/Kansas State (Kansas City, MO)
  • 11/26 - UT Rio Grande Valley
  • 11/29 - Notre Dame
  • 12/3 - Rutgers
  • 12/6 - at Iowa
  • 12/11 - Arizona
  • 12/18 - Saint Francis (PA)
  • 12/22 - Missouri (St. Louis, MO)
  • 12/29 - Florida A&M
  • 1/2 - at Minnesota
  • 1/6 - Maryland
  • 1/11 - at Nebraska
  • 1/14 - Michigan
  • 1/17 - Purdue
  • 1/21 - at Maryland
  • 1/25 - Michigan State
  • 1/29 - at Northwestern
  • 2/2 - Wisconsin
  • 2/5 - at Indiana
  • 2/10 - at Purdue
  • 2/13 - Northwestern
  • 2/16 - at Rutgers
  • 2/19 - at Michigan State
  • 2/24 - Ohio State
  • 2/27 - at Michigan
  • 3/3 - Penn State
  • 3/6 - Iowa

Given the Big Ten’s depth and talent, every team will have its work cut out this season. However, this is going to be particularly difficult slate for Illinois. The team gets 18 games of conference action and six marquee non-conference games. It’s going to take quite a performance for Illinois to avoid a few missteps.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the schedule is as follows:

  • 11/29 - Notre Dame
  • 12/3 - Rutgers
  • 12/6 - at Iowa
  • 12/11 - Arizona

All four of those games are winnable, but it will be challenging. Fortunately, three of the games are at home and Iowa could be much weaker than last year’s version. Illinois also gets double-plays against Maryland, Michigan, and Purdue, which should all be tough this year.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Andre Curbelo (So.) - 95%
  • SG: Trent Frazier (Rs. Sr.) - 90%
  • SF: Da’Monte Williams (Rs. Sr.) - 75%
  • PF: Jacob Grandison (Rs. Sr.) - 70%
  • C: Kofi Cockburn (Jr.) - 95%

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

Much of this is due to the bizarre COVID-19 eligibility issues, but Illinois enters this season with an extremely experienced lineup. The team returns three starters and two more key bench pieces from last season. Without even factoring in the new additions, Illinois projects to have a pretty solid group.

At the point, Curbelo returns after a great freshman campaign. He played behind Dosunmu, but had an offensive rating of 101.8 and filled in nicely when Dosunmu had injury issues, including a great performance against a good Michigan team. And Frazier should start alongside him, as he returns for a fifth year with the program. That’s a great duo.

Behind those two, Illinois will likely rely Plummer and the incoming freshmen. They also have the added luxury of playing Frazier at the point when Curbelo hits the bench. It will give Underwood the ability to find the most productive bench options.

On the wing, expect to see Williams and Grandison take the majority of minutes. They played starter level minutes last season and are both back for another year in Champaign. Both are pretty well known commodities at this time, which is good and bad. There isn’t much upside there, but fans should know what to expect. Most of the bench minutes here will go to the incoming freshmen. Look for Goode to make a mark here.

And upfront, expect Cockburn to lock down the spot. He figures to be a National Player of the Year candidate and an absolute force down low. Payne and Brandon Lieb should take most of the bench minutes. The depth here remains one of the biggest questions for the team entering the season.

9. Realistic Team Goals

With the departure of Dosunmu, some of the team’s expectation shave to change this season. Without someone really emerging, it’s hard to see the team seriously contending for a national title this time around. However, virtually everything else remains on the table. This is a talented and experienced squad that could do some serious damage.

Illinois fans should be hoping for another NCAA Tournament and a shot at this year’s Big Ten title. The team will have to pull off a few wins, but the potential is there.

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s little denying Illinois enters this season with less hype than it had last year. However, that’s largely unjustified. This roster has some serious talent and enough experience to raise another banner when everything is said and done. The newcomers will have to make some noise, but none of them have to be great, solely because the team returns so much.

We’ll see how it all comes together, but Illinois projects to be one of the strongest teams in this year’s Big Ten and a serious conference title contender.

Big Ten Prediction: 2nd Place