The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.
It’s been quite a progression for Illinois since Brad Underwood arrived on campus. Despite inheriting a flawed roster and a program stuck in the doldrums, Underwood has turned Illinois into one of the league’s most consistent winners. The team has quickly compiled three straight seasons with at least 20 wins, what would have been three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and two elite seeds in March.
Unfortunately, that success hasn’t necessarily brought home as much hardware as fans might have hoped. Illinois grabbed a share of the Big Ten title last year and won the 2021 Big Ten Tournament. Both are noteworthy achievements. However, both titles were followed by disappointing finishes in the NCAA Tournament, falling short in the Round of 32 in each season. It’s left fans wanting more, whether reasonable or not.
These mixed emotions lead us into this season, where Illinois is once again expected to contend at the top of the Big Ten and for significant things in March. This will be a “new look” Illini team, with players like Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, and Kofi Cockburn exiting last spring. However, there’s still more than enough talent to make some noise this season, thanks in large part to few massive incoming transfers and true freshman Skyy Clark.
So, can Illinois finally put it all together when it matters most? Let’s take a look.
1. 2021-’22 Season Performance
- Record: 23-10 (15-5)
- KenPom Team Rating: #20
- NET Rating: #15
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)
Last season was a successful one in Champaign. Despite two early missteps and a disappointing 2-2 record to start the season, Illinois put together a banner campaign. The team won the Big Ten regular season title, earned another NCAA Tournament bid, and advanced to the Round of 32 once it got there. Illinois finished the season with a 23-10 record against the 17th toughest slate in the country. Not exactly an easy task.
Unfortunately, the early missteps, a few close losses in conference play, and two losses in March turned what might have been a tremendous season into simply a good one. The early missteps prevented Illinois from getting one of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten losses prevented Illinois from getting an outright Big Ten title, and the losses to Indiana and Houston in the postseason prevented a truly memorable year.
And that’s really the best way to describe Illinois last season. A great team that fell just a bit short of being historic. By any traditional measure, there really isn’t much to criticize. Things went pretty well, it just didn’t hit that next level, where it would truly make a special mark for fans. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just reality. Fans will hope this season can level up.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Kansas State, Notre Dame, and Missouri, the wins over Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in Big Ten play, and the win over Chattanooga in the NCAA Tournament. Low points included the losses to Marquette and Cincinnati, the slip ups against Purdue, and the losses to Indiana and Houston in the postseason.
Individual statistical leaders were Kofi Cockburn and Trent Frazier. Cockburn led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. Frazier led the team in minutes, assists, and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Illinois suffered massive attrition this offseason. Some expected and some unexpected. All told, the team lost four starters and several key reserves. The departures were Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison, Austin Hutcherson, Omar Payne, Alfonso Plummer, Brandin Podziemski, and Da’Monte Williams.
Simply stated, a lot of guys walked out the door.
The most significant departures will be Cockburn and Frazier. They were arguably the team’s most productive players last season and routinely elevated Illinois to key wins. Cockburn was an All-American caliber talent who gave the team a matchup advantage against nearly every team they faced. Similarly, Frazier was an experienced guard who knew how and when to make the plays that mattered most. There’s no way last year’s team wins the Big Ten without those two on the roster.
Unfortunately, the bleeding doesn’t stop there either, as Illinois also loses Plummer, Williams, and Grandison, who all finished among the team’s top five in total minutes last season. In fact, Illinois is losing six of its top seven in minutes from last season, with the only exception being Coleman Hawkins. The only returning player to even average 10 minutes a game last season is Hawkins. Even in today’s game, where transfers and transitions abound, that’s a ton of lost production. It’s hard to believe that won’t matter.
Illinois also loses a few other pieces as well. While Curbelo failed to live up to expectations last year, he was a tremendously skilled guard with plenty of offensive potential. Payne offered some valuable reserve minutes upfront and Bosmans-Verdonk did play in the postseason, even if it only totaled a few minutes. They simply add to the onslaught of lost production Underwood and his staff will have to replace.
3. New Additions
The good news for fans is that Illinois will be adding a plethora of pieces to replace those players. Illinois will be adding four recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps, Sincere Harris, and Ty Rodgers. According to 247Sports, all four are rated as four-star prospects.. Clark is a point guard, Epps is a combo guard, Harris is a shooting guard, and Perrin and Rodgers are power forwards. Paxton Warden also joins as a walk-on.
The recruits attracting the most attention are Clark and Rodgers. Clark is a borderline five-star recruit and finished ranked 33rd nationally in the 2022 class. He’s an athletic guard that can do damage in transition and finish at the hoop. Unfortunately, he recently suffered a torn ACL, which could make him a bit of a question mark coming into this season. Rodgers is likewise best described as a scorer. He’s not a particularly great shooter from deep, but can do damage in the paint and the midrange. Rodgers also oozes with athleticism. Expect some big dunks. The rest of the recruiting class is also expected to contribute for Illinois early on. Epps was a top 100 prospect and Harris narrowly finished outside the top 100.
Illinois also adds a ton of talent from the transfer market as well. The program adds Dain Dainja from Baylor, Matthew Mayer from Baylor, and Terrence Shannon from Texas Tech. All three were rated as four-star prospects in high school and were part of nationally relevant teams last season. While Dainja didn’t play for the Bears last season, Mayer started for Baylor and Shannon was a key piece for a really good Red Raiders squad. Expect all three to compete for playing time next season and don’t be surprised if Mayer and Shannon find their way into the starting lineup.
4. Points of Optimism
There’s a lot to like about Illinois heading into this season. The roster is loaded with talent, there are enough players with experience to believe the team avoids early struggles, and the coaching staff is proven. All of that should make Illinois a solid pick for the NCAA Tournament and beyond.
Let’s begin with the roster. While Illinois lost a considerable amount of talent this offseason, there are pieces to like everywhere. Clark and Epps look like immediate impact players in the backcourt, Mayer and Shannon should lock down things on the wing, and Illinois returns a few decent options with Coleman Hawkins and Brandon Lieb upfront to believe Illinois can hold its own there as well. Few teams will boast that much talent in the lineup.
And things don’t stop there, either. Aside from the above, Illinois also adds an intriguing transfer in Dainja and two more four-star prospects in Harris and Rodgers. If those players are even decent reserves, that would be more than enough to field a solid team. And Illinois has even more as well, including players like Luke Goode and RJ Melendez, who saw decent playing time as freshmen last season. Both should be even better this time around.
Illinois also boasts a pretty proven staff at this point. The three named assistant coaches are different than last year, but Underwood has established himself as a solid Big Ten coach and there’s a ton of familiarity between him, the staff, and the roster. It’s fair to expect they’re going to get the most out of these players. And that bodes well for a roster with this much talent.
5. Points of Concern
Of course, all that positivity can’t come without some cold water. And the water here could be freezing. While fans should be excited about the roster’s talent, depth, and the coaching staff, there are also a lot of transitions happening in Champaign as well. The roster is almost a complete overhaul from last season and the assistant coaches are as well. Those typically aren’t things that bode well for a season ahead.
At the onset, the roster is set to look substantially different. As noted above, Illinois loses nearly every major contributor from last season. Illinois loses its four leading scorers and six of its top seven in total minutes from last season. Even by today’s standards of college basketball, where transitions and transfers abound, that’s massive. It’s essentially the entire starting lineup and some valuable depth pieces.
Many of those players were also irreplaceable as well. You don’t get a Cockburn or a Frazier walking through the door every year. It’s something fans saw when Ayo Dosunmu departed. Even if you have good options behind a player, replacing someone that special is nearly impossible. You can overcome it, you just have to step up elsewhere. That will be the challenge for Illinois this season.
Illinois will also be doing it with some new assistants as well. While the staff has stability and that should excite fans (for the reasons outlined above), there are some new faces. The three assistants on the sideline will be different this year. They all have some familiarity with the program, but it could lead to some early speed bumps, especially when you add it on top of the substantial roster losses.
6. Top Player
Unlike last season, there really aren’t any easy choices in this category. Illinois doesn’t return a star like Cockburn or have anyone like Dosunmu like they did a few years earlier. This is a new look team where a litany of players could emerge into this role.
However, with that said, there are a few leading contenders.
The clearest contenders at the moment are the incoming transfers. Mayer and Shannon are proven players who have produced for relevant teams. Likewise, Dainja is a player with potential as well. If you were placing a bet on who would be the team’s best player this season, you’d probably bet on someone from this group emerging.
Outside of those three, you’re likely looking at the incoming freshmen. And while players like Clark and Epps deserve attention, it’s simply hard to point to a true freshman as a reasonable pick to be a team’s best player. It happens (and more often than some might admit), but it’s certainly not a reasonable expectation. Even if Clark and Epps arrive on campus and are ready to go, they’re more likely to just be productive starters than stars. That’s just usually how these things sort out.
Goode is another potential darkhorse contender this season. He’s a rising sophomore that arrived on campus as a highly sought prospect. It wouldn’t be shocking if he cashed in on some of that hype, improved his game from last year, and stepped into a starring role.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/28 - Quincy (Ex.)
- 11/7 - Eastern Illinois
- 11/11 - Kansas City
- 11/14 - Monmouth
- 11/18 - UCLA (Las Vegas, NV)
- 11/20 - Baylor/Virginia (Las Vegas, NV)
- 11/25 - Lindenwood
- 11/29 - Syracuse
- 12/2 - at Maryland
- 12/6 - Texas (New York, NY)
- 12/10 - Penn State
- 12/17 - Alabama A&M
- 12/22 - Missouri (St. Louis, MO)
- 12/29 - Bethune-Cookman
- 1/4 - at Northwestern
- 1/7 - Wisconsin
- 1/10 - at Nebraska
- 1/13 - Michigan State
- 1/16 - at Minnesota
- 1/19 - Indiana
- 1/24 - Ohio State
- 1/28 - at Wisconsin
- 1/31 - Nebraska
- 2/4 - at Iowa
- 2/7 - Minnesota
- 2/11 - Rutgers
- 2/14 - at Penn State
- 2/18 - at Indiana
- 2/23 - Northwestern
- 2/26 - at Ohio State
- 3/2 - Michigan
- 3/5 - at Purdue
This is a tough slate and it doesn’t take an expert to reach that conclusion. Anytime you play in the Big Ten and add five marquee non-conference games to the schedule, you’re talking about one of the toughest slates in the country. Unless some teams surprisingly underachieve, this is going to be a slog for Illinois.
Non-conference play really feels like it will be defined by the team’s trip to Vegas. If Illinois can at least grab one win in the event, it would go a long way toward Selection Sunday. The team likewise gets a few potential challenges with Syracuse and Missouri later on and a massive showdown against Texas in New York City. A 2-1 record in those three would really set the team up well for a great season.
Conference play, of course, will be a bear. The team avoided double-plays with Michigan State and Purdue, but gets the Boilers on the road and some tough matchups against Wisconsin and Indiana as well. Perhaps the toughest portion of the slate comes here:
- 1/13 - Michigan State
- 1/16 - at Minnesota
- 1/19 - Indiana
- 1/24 - Ohio State
- 1/28 - at Wisconsin
All five of those could be wins, but they all could be losses as well. Surviving that stretch will tell us a lot about whether Illinois has what it takes to hoist the crown at season’s end.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Skyy Clark (Fr.) - 75%
- SG: Terrence Shannon (Sr.) - 90%
- SF: Luke Goode (So.) - 60%
- PF: Matthew Mayer (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
- C: Coleman Hawkins (Jr.) - 70%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Despite losing the team’s starting lineup from last season, Illinois still has plenty of pieces to like heading into this season. It starts with the backcourt where Clark figures to start at the point and Shannon should be alongside him. The two are really talented pieces and should be ready to contribute early next season. Expect to see Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris to grab most of the minutes behind those two.
On the wing, Illinois has a handful of options. Mayer figures to be a sure starter. He’s a proven commodity and should be a team leader. However, it’s unclear who will start alongside him. Goode seems like the most likely option, but it’s going to be a battle between him, RJ Melendez, and Ty Rodgers. Harris may also be able to slide over to the three as well. Expect a deep and competitive battle and some split playing time. The good news is someone is likely to emerge here alongside Mayer.
The biggest question, though, will likely be upfront. Cockburn’s departure leaves a big void. Hawkins seems like the clear pick to start here. He’s arguably the most experienced options and should be pretty reliable. However, he wasn’t exactly great last year. He really needs to take a step forward if Illinois is going to hold its own here. Behind him, expect Brandon Lieb and Dainja to compete.
Overall, there’s a lot to like here. Illinois has a dynamic backcourt and some really nice pieces on the wing. Underwood and his staff will have to sort out some of the depth options and find a big man, but there’s more than enough to work with here to do some damage.
9. Realistic Team Goals
When you talk about players like Frazier and Cockburn departing, it’s going to lead many to calling this a rebuilding season. However, that’d be grossly overstating the situation. Illinois has added more than enough to keep things rolling in Champaign. The recruiting class is loaded and the transfers look like instant impact additions. There’s a lot to like there.
The only question is about how quickly those pieces can come together. Reasonable goals have to focus on returning to the NCAA Tournament and competing for a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament in March. Catch a few breaks from there and things could really come together.
10. Overall Season Outlook
It took a few years, but Underwood has finally returned Illinois to national relevance. While he hasn’t yet converted that to major NCAA Tournament success, the growth has been palpable. It’s also pushed Illinois to the point where fans will simply assume Underwood and his staff will figure things out, even if the program has some obstacles ahead.
And that’s where we are entering this season. Illinois has some major challenges ahead of it. Replacing players like Cockburn and Frazier would be difficult by itself, but the team is also looking to replace several other starters and contributors. However, Illinois has recruited well enough to think the program can find its way through the transition and finish near the top of the Big Ten yet again.