CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Before Illinois takes the floor for the first time against Illinois Wesleyan Friday night, make sure you have a lineup card with you.
After a major amount of roster turnover this past offseason, the Illini return just four players from last year’s team and usher in eight newcomers, six of whom are freshmen.
But — despite all the new faces — the upperclassmen say this team is poised for a strong start.
“This class of freshmen compared to last year has adjusted to the learning curve at a much higher speed,” said junior forward Kipper Nichols.
In fact, two of those freshmen — Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili — will be in the starting lineup when it comes time for tipoff in the exhibition against Wesleyan. Dosunmu was second-year head coach Brad Underwood’s highest ranked recruit in the class of 2018, and his arrival has the Illini fanbase buzzing. On the other hand, Bezhanishvili was a late addition to last year’s recruiting class with little to no hype surrounding his commitment. Yet, a depleted frontcourt will give the Georgian native — the country, not the state — a chance to showcase his skills to Illini fans who are looking for team’s first NCAA Tournament berth in five years.
“It’s about time,” said senior forward Aaron Jordan. “I love these guys. I love playing against them, but you love to see different color jerseys out there, different opponents, different schemes... I’m just excited.”
It’s a contagious emotion, and it showed Thursday morning after practice. While Dosunmu was going through post moves with the big guys on one end of the floor, Nichols, Jordan, Trent Frazier, and the rest of the guards were getting up free throws and jump shots around the perimeter. Practice was over, Underwood had already walked off the floor, but the players looked like they could’ve spent all day in the gym, just laughing and getting after it with each other.
“Like I’ve said before, this is the closest team I’ve been with,” Jordan said. “Our guys are really together. All that adversity on the outside, it’s there, but we’re not letting that seep into us.”
But with so many new faces, it is going to take more time to find that chemistry on the floor than off it. Underwood tinkered with lineups this weekend against Vanderbilt in Illinois’ first scrimmage, but he did tease Illini fans with a starting five for Friday.
“I think we’ll start Trent and Ayo, then give the veterans a good look — AJ and Kipper — and then Giorgi at the five,” Underwood said. “We’ll see a plethora of different lineups throughout.”
But on basketball season finally being back?
“I’m really happy for these guys that they finally get to get out here and play,” Underwood added. “They’re getting it, they’re excited. It’s why they came here; to play in this building, to play in front of our fans, so I’m excited about that. I look for everything. I’m curious to see how they play under the lights and in front of our fans.
“There’s a plethora of information out there to gather from something like this. Yet, I get it. They’re going to be nervous. There’s going to be jitters. There’ll probably be some for the veterans as well. It’ll be good to get that out of the way.”
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