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Big Ten Basketball Previews: Illinois

And you thought your team had changed

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Pittsburgh
You’ve got this. My center’s name is...Bill? Tom? Think it’s Tom. Definitely Tom.
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2022 In Review

It was an interesting season for Illinois. After losing Ayo from a 1 seed team in 2021, Illinois looked to keep things rolling with Andre Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn. While Cockburn had another great season, Curbelo struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness. No matter, Illinois turned to a great group of seniors on their way to a share of the B1G crown, and a disappointing, if unlucky loss to Houston in the NCAA tourney.

The offseason brought changes. Lots and lots of changes. Kofi is trying to catch on in the pros, while Curbelo transferred to St. John’s. Seniors Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Da’Monte Williams, and Curtis Grandison all moved on. They return just 16.5% of minutes played from last season, and even their fans are going to need a program to figure out who is on the team this season. A program...or this guide, amirite?


PG Skyy Clark, 6’3’’ Freshman: It’s been a journey for the top 35 recruit Clark, who initially signed with Kentucky before changing his mind and going with the Illini. While dealing with recruiting he also suffered and recovered from a torn ACL. Now he comes to the Illini, where it looks like he will start at the point right away. He profiles as a physical guard who can attack the basket, though it is an open question how comfortable he is making plays for others.

SG Terrence Shannon, 6’6’’ Senior: Transfer Nation, here we come. Shannon was considered one of the top options in the portal coming from Texas Tech. He is a good shooter (51/28/78) and a strong defender, and has already made the All-B1G team despite being a transfer. The question mark for him is whether he can be a big time scorer rather than just an efficient one. His usage was never very high at Texas Tech, but Illinois probably wants him to be more of a primary guy.

SF R.J. Melendez, 6’7’’ Sophomore: Melendez didn’t play much last year, but the former top 100 recruit flashed a bit when he did play. A slash line of 56/60/85 (albeit on very low volume) can open some eyes. Illini fans are excited, though I’m little skeptical there won’t be some growing pains for the second year player.

PF Matthew Mayer, 6’9’’ Senior: Transfer Nation strikes again, this time with Baylor fifth year senior Mayer, who played a meaningful role on their championship season in 2021. He profiles as a mullet positive rebounder with a good shot - he only shot 32% last year from three but was near 40% the year before. He is also an active defender, and his steal and block rates were strong. All in all, he’s another strong but new player for Brad Underwood to utilize.

C Coleman Hawkins, 6’10’’ Junior: Hey, it’s an actual Illini player who started some games for them last season. Hawkins came into the season as a starter, and ended the season as a starter, and in the middle came off the bench. All he has to do is take over for Kofi Cockburn. He did show some rebounding and defense last year, and unlike Kofi is willing to shoot threes, though he wasn’t particularly effective at making them. Illinois has a couple other options here so we might see a committee type approach towards manning the middle.


PF Dain Dainja, 6’9’’ Sophomore: Transfer Nation Rides Again. From Baylor (again), Dainja comes in as a burly big man at 270 pounds but very little experience. He came to a Baylor a four star prospect but redshirted during their championship season, then played in just three games last year before hitting the portal. His original scouting profile said he had some offensive skills and could rebound, but right now he’s a bit of an unknown.

C Brandon Lieb, 6’10’’ Junior: The final veteran is the lightly used Lieb, who has patiently sat at the bottom of the bench for two years. With Hawkins and now Dainja in the mix at center, it’s probably another year of garbage time for the big man.

SF Luke Goode, 6’7’’ Sophomore: Goode played limited minutes last year as a sophomore and was in line for a big jump in minutes. Unfortunately, he broke his foot recently and probably won’t play for some time.

F Ty Rodgers, 6’6’’ Freshman: We’ve already talked about Clark, but Illinois has other freshman signees who may get in the rotation this year. Rodgers, who hit 53 on the composite, profiles as a springy athlete who loves to attack the basket and who can create for others. His shot still needs some work. Can’t have everything, I guess.

CG Jayden Epps, 6’2’’ Freshman: Epps checked in at 72 on the composite, though 247 itself liked him quite a bit more and put him 49th. He profiles as an athletic guard who loves to score in 1 on 1 situations. If Illinois is running and gunning this year he may fit in well in the rotation.

SG Sencire Harris, 6’3’’ Freshman: Another four star guard, Harris hit 109 on the composite. He profiles as a long and athletic guard who might be able to contribute this year with his defense, though Brad Underwood says he needs to be “eating a couple thousand calories more than everybody else every day.” I wish I could get on that kind of diet.


midreavus79: They can’t possibly win the Big Ten three years in a row, can they?

He was a high school QB: Illinois has three returning players that saw regular time last year and zero starters. I read somewhere that we lost 93.7% off last year’s scoring. In the past, that would mean rebuilding. However, in the transfer portal age, you can build a team in one offseason. We added two of the most sought after transfers of the summer from the Big XII as well as Dain “Highway to the” Dainja “Zone” in January.

I watched the exhibition against Quincy and obviously the team looked totally different. I really think this team plays the style Underwood really wanted to play, but didn’t have the personnel for. We are long and athletic at every position on the court. Against Quincy, we pushed tempo on both ends of the floor including running some full court press with 6’10” Coleman Hawkins at the point and two of the numerous 6’6” or 6’7” players at the wings. Defense was up the line hunting passing lanes in the half-court.

On offense, Underwood was heard screaming at 5 star freshman PG Skyy Clark that “We don’t walk the ball up the court. Sprint or sit next to me!!!” Shooting is a problem potentially. Our best shooter and starter Luke Goode suffered a fractured foot in the super secret scrimmage against KU before Self got suspended. Against Quincy our only reliable offense was in the fast break off turnovers.

Ty Rodgers and Skyy Clark got most of the publicity coming in. They both showed flashes. Clark is lighting quick and changes direction on a dime. He’ll make some people look foolish this year. Ty is one of those wings MSU always seemed to have that were hard nosed and did a bit of everything. However, the freshman that impressed me the most was Sencire Harris. He was an absolute terror on the defensive side where many freshman struggle. In the postgame presser, the first words out of Underwood’s mouth were about Sencire’s defense. If he keeps that up, he’ll see a lot of tick. He also wears #1 and a headband and is a lefty. It’s almost like Trent Frazier STILL hasn’t left.

Underwood teams have historically been slow starting. Given the massive turnover and a brutal early schedule, it’s safe to assume Illinois won’t burst out of the gates, but I think they’ll be in the hunt for another B1G title come March.

MaximumSam: Where do you even start with this team? Sometimes college basketball feels like taking random groups of athletes and basically just picking teams every year. That whole “watch kids develop” is going by the wayside a bit. I would be on the camp of “a team dependent on freshmen and transfers isn’t going to be that good,” but that’s like half the league this year. Illinois has good players, and a good coach, so they ought to be pretty good.

Other Takes

BT Powerhouse: 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.

Inside The Hall: On paper, the Illini have plenty of talent on their roster to be a serious contender for the league crown — especially in a down year for the conference. But the question remains: Will the large number of newcomers, both old and young, be able to find the chemistry necessary to make it work? After a shaky start to his tenure, Underwood has been one of the Big Ten’s best coaches, especially in terms of adapting to his roster’s strengths and weaknesses. How quickly he gets this group to mesh may tell the story of the Illini’s season.

Daily Hoosier: Illinois’ recent success was more about Kofi Cockburn than Underwood. At 7-feet, 285 pounds and athletic, Cockburn presented a unique challenge that few teams had answers for. Prior to his arrival, Illinois was 26-39 in Underwood’s first two seasons. Without Cockburn, Illinois will snap back to reality.