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Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball 2017-18 Preview and Predictions

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The journey back to relevance starts here, but it’ll be a long road

NCAA Basketball: Big 10 Media Day Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

I’m pretty excited about the fact that Illinois hired an actual basketball coach to replace motivational speaker John Groce. Brad Underwood is definitely a facts-oriented, down-to-earth basketball coach who has been brutally honest but perfectly fair with the team in the videos I’ve seen. His results speak volumes about his coaching acumen and in just one season at Oklahoma State the team made significant strides over the course of the year.

This, however, is a rebuild because Illinois has some problems.

Last Year

Last year, I drank the Orange Kool-Aid and ended up in the hospital vowing never to drink it again. A team I picked to win 25 games instead lost at home to Winthrop and then get obliterated by 32 points against West Virginia. Every game the Fighting Illini played on ESPN last year was a loss by 25 or more if my memory serves me correctly. They were run out of the gym on a number of occasions with what was supposed to be one of the most talented and experienced teams in the league. With their backs against the wall, they rallied to sweep Northwestern and Iowa and then knock on the doorstep of the bubble by beating Michigan State at home in the penultimate game of the year. Perhaps Groce had finally broken through and this would be the team that started a string of tournament runs!

Cue a faceplant against Rutgers, to which they responded by not even showing up in the Big Ten Tournament in a lifeless blowout against Michigan. John Groce was fired, and it was worth losing Jeremiah Tilmon to cut ties with him.

The Lineup

Departures: Basically Everyone

Specifically: Malcolm Hill (17.2 ppg in 33.3 mpg; accounted for 204 of 643 free throws shot by Illinois last year): graduated.

Also: centers Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne Jr graduated, as did Tracy Abrams. Jalen Coleman-Lands and DJ Williams transferred. Kendrick Nunn is probably going to set the Horizon League on fire.

Addition by subtraction: Jaylon Tate graduated.

Additions: Da’Monte Williams, Trent Frazier, Mark Smith, Mark Alstork, Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel.

Projected Starters: PG Mark Smith (Fr), SG Mark Alstork (Sr), SF Kipper Nichols (RS-So), PF Leron Black (Jr), C Michael Finke (RS-Jr)

Yep, that’s two starters that have never played in Illini colors before. Smith was Mr. Basketball in Illinois this year after having a tremendous senior season in high school. Underwood was able to get in on this late-rising star. Smith can play the 1 and the 2 well and is the rare type of Illinois freshman that may actually be ready for Big Ten play. He’ll definitely split minutes at the point with sophomore Te’Jon Lucas and talented freshman Trent Frazier. The Fighting Illini are stacking young talent in the backcourt, with Da’Monte Williams joining this year and Ayo Dosunmu coming in 2018. Aaron Jordan is another returning player for Illinois, but the starting 2 spot will likely go to Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork. He was the 3rd-highest scorer on the graduate-transfer market this past offseason.

As for the frontcourt...Nichols, Black and Finke might average 40 minutes per game, because they’re basically all we have that’s ready to play. Vesel is a Slovenian stretch 4 with a polished finesse game and a good shot that will need to add some serious size to compete in the Big Ten. Eboigbodin is a 6’9” Nigerian with only three years of basketball experience who played EYBL ball with Cassius Winston and Miles Bridges in Detroit. He has long arms and a good understanding of Underwood’s system but is only 220lb and is not likely to be a presence on the boards. Thus it’ll fall to Finke, the tallest player on the roster at 6’10”, to play a lot of center. Black is our best rebounder but still gets into foul trouble quite easily. Nichols is a terrific athlete that was underused last year, but the frontcourt remains highly challenged for depth.

Underwood, in general, wants to play fast and get shots off in under seven seconds. We’ll probably see a guard-heavy rotation even under ideal conditions, but the state of the Illini frontcourt is ridiculous at the moment.

What 2 Watch 4

Our games might end up looking a lot like the Michigan vs Oklahoma State game in this past NCAA Tournament, which was the last game Underwood coached for the Cowboys. Lots of shots flying with double digits left on the shot clock. It’ll be a fun ride...eventually. But this is a crew that was led by John Groce that lost all its leadership from last year.

Predictions

Look, I’m gonna be real honest with you here. If for whatever reason this is being read by people outside the OTE community, you dramatically underestimate how weird this roster situation is and the toxicity of the losing culture that flourished at Illinois, especially late in the season. If you read OTE regularly, you probably expected dinosaurs. It’s been almost a year since I used that setup. Well you know what, no dinosaurs because Pragmatic Thumpasaurus and Depression Thumpasaurus sound exactly the same now and Belligerent Thumpasaurus is long gone.

I think what I’m saying is that I have a habit of wildly overestimating Illinois basketball, as well as football. Remember, I went a little crazy with my football predictions and said they’d win three games this year, so obviously I need to tone down the optimism.

Well, here we go. I’m gonna say we lose to DePaul, Wake Forest, UNLV, New Mexico State, Missouri and Grand Canyon in the non-conference and then kick off the conference slate by getting our doors blown off by Northwestern. We’ll be Nebraska’s only win this year and embark on one hell of a losing streak before figuring some things out late in the year and surprising someone decent (dare I suggest that end-of-February tilt in East Lansing could be it?). Then we’ll put together a surprising run in the Big Ten Tournament that will come up short when we have to play someone with tall people that are also good.

I don’t know if you care about the breakdowns from our other writers, because I’m sure several aren’t even aware that we have a new coach and probably wouldn’t recognize half the lineup. That’s because Illinois basketball is drifting dangerously close to Illinois football territory: you don’t think about it, it’s just kind of this thing that sometimes gets in your way for a hot second but then it goes away. It’s not supposed to be like that, and for decades and decades it wasn’t, but I guarantee that one of the first 10 comments posted on this is some extremely clever variation on “lol tl;dr illinois can’t have nice things, feed me more stale memes so i don’t have to think.”

Here’s the average of how the staff predicted it:

Illinois: 17.2-13.8 (6.8-11.2)

All y’all thought we’d win between 6 and 8 league games and 16-20 overall. But you have such short memories. Mike Thomas is the worst athletic director in the history of major college athletics and he left Josh Whitman with a Herculean task to make the revenue sports worth thinking about again. Brad Underwood’s a good coach and will definitely at some point lead Illinois to the NCAA Tournament where we belong, but this roster is bizarre and small, this is year one, and also I’m sick of having Illinois fail even my most modest predictions.

So I say: Illinois: 11-20 (4-14).

Yep, we’re going to lose a lot of ugly games early and a horde of mouthbreathers will go on the Twitter and declare Underwood a bust and then a bunch of idiot trolls will reply “lawl he totally is and his buyout is like so big too kek” and then what the hell ever. These people are wrong before they even say anything, but I’m in the kind of place where I can confidently predict the worst season in the history of Illini hoops, so don’t even go preemptively trolling me in the comment section. I hope we all go 9-9 and only send one team to the NCAA Tournament and they get bounced in the first round.