Two years ago Illinois won the B1G tournament and lost their best player all three assistants and came back last year and won the regular season B1G title. Now we lose our best player again so we’ll prolly win a natty, right, bruh?
Maybe not, but it appears that Underwood and Co are reloading rather than rebuilding. Pretty much the entire team from last year is gone, yet T-rank has Illinois as the 12th best team in the nation and 2nd best team in the B1G. 247 rates the incoming freshman class as the 9th best in the nation (2nd B1G) and ranks the incoming transfer class as #2 in the nation.
Everyone here has wanted to do that once, amirite? Especially the Boiler fans.
Obviously, the biggest loss is losing our enormous Cockburn filling the lante, who was All B1G and All-American last year. Fifth year senior guards Trent Frazier, Damonte Williams, and Alfonso Plummer also depart. Wings Jacob Grandison and the oft-injured Austin Hutcherson did not use their COVID year to come back for a sixth season. Then we lost four players to the transfer portal. Dutch big man Benjamin Bosman-Verdonk will now be a Gamecock. Former Wisconsin high school player of the year Brandin Podziemski went to Santa Clara and former Florida Gator Omar Payne went back to Florida to Jacksonville University seeking PT at smaller schools. The big transfer loss was explosive point guard Andre Curbelo, who never seemed quite right after an early season concussion. He headed to NY to play for St. Johns. Those players represent 85% of our scoring and rebounding. 85! That’s not ideal. Hopefully it won’t be a dagger to the heart of next year’s team.
So, who the hell is going to take the court for the Illinois Fighting Illini? Two 6’7” freshman wings played rotational minutes last year. Sharpshooter Luke Goode and athletic RJ Melendez will step into larger roles. The only other returning player is the versatile 6’10” Coleman Hawkins, who can handle the ball, shoot from outside and bang in the post. He struggled with foul trouble at times, but figures to play a larger role in 2022-23.
Then we have seven newcomers who will take the balance of the minutes. Underwood raided the Big XII for three transfers. Terrence Shannon Jr left Lubbock, TX and headed to Champaign after averaging 11 pts/game and shooting 35% from three in three years at TX Tech. I mentioned earlier than Illinois was ranked #2 in incoming transfer classes. #1 on that list is Texas Tech, where Shannon came to Illinois from. Matthew Mayer and his mullet will fit in well in central Illinois. He joined his former (and now current again) teammate Dain Dainja, who transferred from Baylor mid-season last year. Both are 6’9”. Mayer is an experienced stretch four playing his fifth season, while Dainja is a redshirt freshman traditional big who had six points in three games before wanting out of the hellhole that is Waco, TX. Having spent considerable time in the area myself, I don’t blame him.
Next up for newcomers are the freshman. Leading off a top ten ranked class is 5 star point guard Skyy Clark. That was a big commitment for the staff as they got a verbal from his little brother ZZ who is a top 2023 player. Another point guard, 4 star Jayden Epps joins Skyy and 4 star wings, Sincere Harris and Ty Rodgers help the talent infusion. All three four stars won state championships in high school. Epps (Virginia) Harris (Ohio) Rodgers (Michigan)
Skyy not only takes over for Curbelo at PG, but also takes over his spot as biggest hair on the team. However, it’s a tall task for any freshman to take the reins at PG for a B1G team, but Skyy is also coming off a torn ACL and missed much of his senior season of high school.
Illinois has been a fixture near the top of the B1G and the nation for the last three years. Can they continue without their star players and experienced guards? Perhaps. T-rank has Illinois at 12th in the country, 2nd in the B1G based on the new stew of talent. Last year, Illinois had size, but most all of it was our giant Cockburn. Underwood would often play a lineup with 2-3 6’1” guards and 6’3” Damonte Williams played power forward regularly. This year’s team will regularly feature 4 guys on the court between 6’6” and 6’10” which has Illinois fans salivating thinking about the positionless Flying Illini days. That team had no trouble rebounding against teams with larger centers by sending 5 long athletes crashing the boards together and then getting out and running, which wore down larger opponents. The team will look vastly different on both offense and defense.
On defense, gone will be two of the best defenders in the school history with the departure of Trent Frazier, the best perimeter on ball defender in the country last year, and the versatile Damonte Williams, who always guarded the other teams best wing/forward, as well as the imposing Cockburn stuffing the middle and clearing the boards. I expect Illinois will play more pressure similar to what Underwood ran at Stephen F Austin with the collection of long athletes.
On offense, last year it was a two-pronged attack with the perimeter players shooting threes or cramming it inside to Kofi Cockburn. This year, we will see the team getting out in transition more and running the spread offense with pinch post sets in the halfcourt similar to what Illinois did before we had our giant Cockburn eating up space in the middle.
This team will be good, but I think there will be a slight step back as the team will miss the steady hand of Trent Frazier and the grit and toughness of Damonte Williams.
Dude has been wrecking red teams for five years.
The two freshman point guards have a lot of talent, but counting on freshman point guards to contend for conference and national titles is probably a bit of a stretch, especially with one of them a year removed from an ACL tear. There will also be an adjustment period as the team not only has to integrate 7 new players into the rotation, but also rolling out a new offense and defense. 12-8 sounds about right to me.