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Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball Season Preview: Still A Big Ten Title Contender In 2021-22

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Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo provide a chance at the title

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois
big boi bak
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not one of the typical Illinois Fighting Illini fans that looks ahead to basketball as soon as football’s gone awry. Frankly, it still feels early to talk about basketball even though the season starts soon; there’s still ILLINOIS FOOTBALL to play and that’s where my energy is. However, it’s a privilege to write about this particular Fighting Illini basketball team coming off a season where they won more Big Ten games than any other team, hung a Big Ten Tournament banner and earned a #1 seed. Nobody has won more Big Ten conference games over the last two seasons than Illinois, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t keep up for at least one more year.

I. Most Of Last Season Recap

A breakthrough season for head coach Brad Underwood started with two ridiculously dominant wins before a narrow escape against Ohio nevertheless had them ranked #5.

After the John Groce era and a seven year absence from the postseason, #5 Illinois played #2 Baylor. They competed throughout but lost by 13. Still, Baylor ended up being decent. A road curbstomping of Duke made up for it, but infuriating losses to unranked Mizzou and at Rutgers had the Illini 5-3 overall on December 23rd. They remained ranked, winning five Big Ten games and beating Northwestern 81-56 in a game they trailed 43-28 at the half. Two home losses to Maryland and Ohio State seemed to knock them out of the title race.

The Fighting Illini won 11 of their last 12 regular season games, losing star guard Ayo Dosunmu for a few games in a loss at Michigan State but nevertheless crushing Wisconsin and Michigan on the road in his absence. They’d finish 16-4 in Big Ten play and win the Big Ten tournament. Here’s where the trail runs cold; I’m unable to find any records of what Illinois did after the Big Ten Tournament, which is a shame because they looked like they could have gone deep into the NCAA Tournament that was won by Baylor. There just isn’t any accounting for their activity during that time frame. Quite the enigma.

II. Roster

For a team losing two starters, this team still looks pretty robust. Kofi Cockburn returns as a defensive anchor at center and an offensive outlet. He averaged nearly a double-double per game (17.7/9.5). Super-senior guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams will return, with Frazier providing on ball defense (2021 Big Ten All-Defense Team) and three point shooting and Williams adding all-purpose defensive playmaking. Point guard Andre Curbelo (2021 Big Ten All-Freshman Team) will be running the offense, and while he doesn’t have the scoring upside of Ayo Dosunmu, he has incredible vision as a passer and the mentality to go after rebounds. Glue guy Jacob Grandison will also return to the starting lineup.

Departures

All-American Ayo Dosunmu was drafted in the second round by his hometown Chicago Bulls. He averaged a ridiculous 20/6/5 last year. Giorgi Bezhanishvili also left to test the pro market. The Nuggets signed him to an Exhibit 10 contract, and he’s currently on the G League Grand Rapids Gold.

After starting every single game as a true freshman, Adam Miller was finally fed up with how small his role was and left for greener pastures at LSU. He tore his ACL last week. Reserve Jermaine Hamlin left for a bigger role at Eastern Illinois and two walk-ons (Zach Griffith and Tyler Underwood) graduated.

All in all, Illinois lost 35.8 points per game (Ayo 20.1, Miller 8.3, Giorgi 5.1), 13.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.6 blocks and 5.6 turnovers per game.

Arrivals

Perhaps the most underrated arrival is Austin Hutcherson, a Wesleyan transfer from two years ago who redshirted his first year at Illinois and missed last year with a back injury. He’s a 6’6” guard with a good shot that has some experience playing with Illinois despite never suiting up for a game.

The biggest new difference maker is Florida transfer Omar Payne. At 6’10” and 240lb, he should be more than capable of replacing Giorgi. He played mostly center at Florida, so I expect him to be a very good rotational player to spell Kofi at center, but Underwood has shown a willingness to experiment with two bigs on the floor before. Either way, Payne will fill a huge hole on Illinois present when Kofi Cockburn is on the bench.

Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer will also bring some shooting help and will probably replace Adam Miller, though he may not start immediately. He averaged 13.6 points a game his last year at Utah, knocking down 40% of his threes.

The recruiting class saw Illinois bring in three similar-looking players, all athletic wings aroung six and a half feet tall. Luke Goode, Ramses Melendez and Brandin Podziemski were all rated as four-star recruits and while I don’t expect any to be immediate contributors, they’re foundational pieces to this team going forward and will allow Illinois to play a faster, more athletic offense than the very Kofi-centric design they currently have.

Projected Depth Chart

Illinois Projected Depth Chart

Starters Bench Depth
Starters Bench Depth
Andre Curbelo (So) Trent Frazier (Sr)
Alfonso Plummer (Sr) Luke Goode (Fr)/Brandon Podziemski (Fr) RJ Melendez (Fr)
Austin Hutcherson (Jr) DaMonte Williams (Sr) Connor Serven (So, walkon)
Jacob Grandison (Sr) Coleman Hawkins (So) Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (So)
Kofi Cockburn (Jr) Omar Payne (Jr) Brandon Lieb (So)

Right now, Frazier and Williams are starting over Plummer and Hutcherson. I expect that’ll continue until at least Braggin Rights, but I think in particular Hutch has a way higher offensive ceiling than Da’Monte and Underwood might want to come out looking to score out of the gate.

I’m less certain that Frazier will lose his starting spot to what might be a more dependable deep shooter in Plummer, but even if he does it will mostly be for the purpose of staggering his minutes with Curbelo’s some more. Frazier will get starter minutes even if he doesn’t start. He and Curbelo are by miles the best ballhandlers and one of them will bring the ball up on every possession.

III. Outlook

This team is ranked #11 in the preseason rankings. We certainly can’t afford to miss the tournamentp here.

The non-conference has a couple of tomato cans before the Illini travel to Marquette for the Gavitt Games assignment. They’ll play in the Hall of Fame classic, drawing Cincinnati in the semifinals. If they defeat Cincinnati and Arkansas loses on the other side of the bracket, the Fighting Illini will face...

Bruce Weber and the Kansas State Wildcats.

So, that’ll be fun. I love Bruce. I wish he’d done better later in his tenure at Illinois.

Notre Dame is the ACC opponent this year, and it’s at home so this is a great opportunity to avenge the time they ruined the night we dedicated the court to Lou Henson. Run them out of the building. The early B1G games are Rutgers and @Iowa. The Big Ten finally wised up and had Illinois play Iowa twice this year. Arizona awaits after those two, and of course Braggin’ Rights gives us our annual game against Missouri.

There aren’t really any marquee opponents in the non-conference, but there are several legit teams with talent on that docket.

I, of course, would like to see Illinois win every game. I will be furious if they miss the tournament; with Kofi Cockburn returning, it’s fair to expect around a 4-seed. Here’s some goals I have that are about exorcising demons:

  1. Beat Mizzou. I don’t care what it takes. I don’t care if it requires them to lose all their other non-conference games. In the dark era of Illini hoops when we knew the January swoon would take us out of the tournament discussion, our whole season was this game. I care about this game more than I care about beating Iowa or Michigan. BEAT. MIZZOU. You have the talent. You have the depth. You have the experience. BEAT MIZZOU.
  2. Go Nuts At Home. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be the craziest Illini home crowd since 2005. Illinois was ranked throughout last year, went 16-4 in the Big Ten and produced two All-Americans, all in front of no fans. After waiting 7 years for a tournament team and 15 years for an elite team and then being unable to see that team live and in person, I expect Illini fans to tear the roof off the State Farm Center this season. I’m going for the Big Ten conference opener against Rutgers on December 3rd. I can’t wait.
  3. Beat Maryland. Why Maryland? I don’t know. I’ve been asking Brad Underwood that same question for years. Why do we keep losing to Maryland in such stupid ways, especially at home? Brad Underwood is 1-4 against Maryland at Illinois and has lost three in a row. It would be cool if we could just stop losing to Maryland in ridiculous fashion at home.
  4. Beat Michigan. A sweep would be nice, but certainly they can’t be allowed to win in Champaign. Minus Adam Miller, this is basically the team that stomped the piss out of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last year.
  5. Top 5 Big Ten season standings finish. Ideally, win the conference, but that’s hard. Shit, sometimes you win more games than anyone else and don’t win the conference. Illinois should nevertheless be a factor in the conference race, and I expect they’ll be one of the big players along with Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State (and Michigan State out of nowhere as usual).
  6. Humiliate Northwestern. Hard to top what they did on the road last year for this metric, but it is important that Illinois continue to dominate Northwestern in ways that make their players want to quit the game or transfer to Indiana. On January 29th, Illini fans will fill Welsh-Ryan as they so often do, and hopefully the Fighting Illini make everyone at Northwestern totally embarrassed to even be fielding a men’s basketball team. After what keeps happening to my Thanksgiving weekends the last six years, I’d like to see the earth salted where Northwestern basketball once stood.

IV. Predictions

An embarrassingly small number of writers have done their predictions, so I won’t copypaste the results here, but five of us have collectively pegged Illinois at 24-6 (14-6).

As it just so happens, that is exactly the record I’ve predicted for the Fighting Illini. The way my other records line up, that ties Ohio State for 3rd in the conference, one game behind a tie for first between Michigan and Purdue that will go to Michigan, since they’ll have the head-to-head win in the only game the two teams play that just HAPPENS to be in Ann Arbor because of course.

Kofi Cockburn will continue to physically dominate all the centers in this conference on both ends of the floor as Andre Curbelo dazzles as a court wizard, but the bench puts this team over the top and gives it the energy to make a run at hanging another banner.

Maybe we won’t get lost on our way to the NCAA’s this year.

Poll

Illinois Basketball. What do you think?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    National Champs
    (20 votes)
  • 22%
    Big Ten Champs, 1 seed
    (27 votes)
  • 48%
    Top-3 finish, high seed
    (58 votes)
  • 7%
    4th or 5th, probably high seed
    (9 votes)
  • 1%
    Middle of the pack, solidly in
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Bubble team
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    NIT 2-seed
    (0 votes)
  • 2%
    Absolute Disaster
    (3 votes)
119 votes total Vote Now