Following Big Ten Media Days, a poll showed that Illinois was second in power rankings for the next season to take home conference bragging rights. Though this is extremely exciting for the Illini, the upcoming season holds many question marks at almost every position for Illinois men’s basketball. That being said, one thing is certain: None of those questions are about talent.
Illinois was ranked seventh overall by 247Sports in recruitment classes securing 4-star recruits Skyy Clarke, Ty Rodgers, Jayden Epps, and Sencire Harris. To top it off, staff was also able to tap into the Big 12 talent pipeline from the portal with transfers Matthew Mayer, Terrence Shannon Jr., and Dain Dainja. With this new look and the return of RJ Melendez, Luke Goode, and Coleman Hawkins, everyone’s eyes are fixated on Champaign and what the team’s path to success will look like in the Big Ten.
Illinois has dominated the Big Ten the past three seasons, recording 13 wins or more in conference play, the first time this feat has been achieved in school history. The veteran leadership of the guards has been a major key to the continued success Illinois has enjoyed. However, this year marks the end of an era, and the first year Brad Underwood will coach for the Illini without Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams in the backcourt.
At the Big Ten Media Days, Underwood commented on their significance, mentioning that both players could have run the practices last season in his absence.
“Being in our system five years, (Frazier) was reliable; he was dependable,” Underwood said. “I knew exactly what I was getting with him.”
In the absence of Kofi Cockburn, high-level guard play will be needed unlike ever before. Frazier was someone who understood how to play with Kofi and when to feed him the ball. Looking at Shannon Jr.’s stats, the output he had been able to give the Red Raiders at Texas Tech mirrors that of Frazier’s, except that program played with more of a positionless offensive style, much closer to what Underwood will look to incorporate in the upcoming season. This could translate extremely well with Shannon’s experience, and with his size, he will play a critical role in the defensive scheme of the team as well.
Hawkins explained how the Illinois offensive would look different in the coming season while on air at B1G Media Days.
“Last year it was easier for opponents to see we were playing high-low passes,” Hawkins said. “Now it’s more of a randomness for players like me and Dain, where we can set flares or catch the ball up top and facilitate better. So, it’s been easier to be a part of a system where we’re not looking for certain passes and posting up; it’s more being ourselves.”
Hawkins seems to be settling into this new system with great enthusiasm for both himself and Dainja. Because the offense is missing a center putting up double-doubles every game, this team is essentially a blank canvas for Underwood to show his true coaching abilities. What’s on his palate is known, but Illini fans everywhere are excited to see what combination of play styles he produces for the start of the season.
As for the second half of the backcourt, the freshman duo of Clarke and Epps seem to be likely suitors for this role. While outsiders may be skeptical, this is not the first time the Illini have seen freshman guards step into a big role.
The track record of now Chicago Bulls starting point guard Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo and their success for the program shows Underwood’s expertise in fostering a certain brand of basketball and set of expectations for incoming freshmen guards. While this is no feeble task, Underwood seems eager about the situation.
“I love our freshmen. I’m excited about what they bring,” Underwood said. “They’ll need some help. There’s going to be some adversity. There’s going to be some speed bumps. We accept that. That’s part of growth. Yet they’re pretty tough-minded individuals. They’re going to have to learn on the fly.”
Judging off their athletic ability alone, these guys are used to doing things on the fly. This team has the talent to compete with the best that the NCAA has to offer. This season will be a matter of the team’s ability to work cohesively and be mentally tough enough to ride out any storms that may be thrown their way.
Coach Underwood has been given many challenges throughout his collegiate coaching career, but this may be his toughest battle yet. Only 16.5 of the minutes played per game for the Illini last year are returning to the roster. Great coaches have faltered with less adversity before, and this will be no small task for players and staff.
As Illinois gears up for yet another season of great anticipation, the Illini faithful look on with hope in their eyes, excited to see how this team pulls together. The regular season action picks back up Nov. 7, at the State Farm Center, and the question marks for this team will begin to unfold.