The 2018-19 Illinois Basketball team might be one of the more difficult ones to assess in recent years early on.
There's talent. There are better fits schematically. There's little big man depth. There's a tough schedule.
What that confluence of questions will culminate in season-wise, I have no idea. It should be fun to watch though.
Question 1: Where's the Beef?
Guard play should not be an issue with this team. Trent Frazier is coming off a sensational freshman season that saw him average 12.5 points per game. Big Ten All-Freshman Team. A highlight reel night after night.
You add to that a talented 5-star freshman point guard in Ayo Dosunmu. The Chicago native will make mistakes, but his talent is undeniable. Plus the No. 1 JUCO point guard, Andres Feliz, who is coming off a 20-point, 5-assist debut in an exhibition against Illinois Wesleyan on Friday. DaMonte Williams. Illinois is loaded at the guard spots.
The biggest question is... What is Illinois going to do about their front court?
It seems to be a hodge-podge of raw, but talented freshman with junior Kipper Nichols switching to the four or five, depending on the personnel in the game. Naturally, Nichols is a three in this system, but he's also one of your more willing rebounders and he has experience at this level over his more youthful counterparts.
Not to say Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane cannot play. They will have their problems with fouls and mistakes, however, and are extremely unproven at the Big Ten level. It will be interesting to see how they develop as the season progresses. For now, though, they cannot be relied on for a large amount of minutes.
That leaves more small ball looks with Nichols and Aaron Jordan mixing in for depth and rebounding. Say what you want about Jordan's scoring prowess (or lack thereof), but the kid plays tough and won't back down an inch under the basket.
There are a few options, but none of them will be solely relied upon. It will take all of the players I named above to form a cohesive unit of scoring just enough, facilitating for our guards, and rebounding.
Question 2: Answering Adversity
This is one of the toughest schedules I think I've ever seen Illinois have.
Never mind the Big Ten slate. That will be hard enough. Then there's Georgetown. There's Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten matchup. Then there's Maui, where the Illini open with No. 3 Gonzaga, where the field also includes Duke, Arizona, Xavier, and several other tough teams. Oh, and who could forget the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis?
Illinois' marquee games before Christmas: Maui Invitational (open with Gonzaga), Georgetown, UNLV, at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, Ohio State (Chicago), Missouri (Saint Louis). Yikes!— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) August 21, 2018
There are a few gimmes in there, but that's a lot of good teams on the docket.
How will Illinois react when they're struggling offensively? Will Underwood abandon the full-court press defense if it results in fewer takeaways and more points for the opposition? How will the youth on the team react to being down early? Or late? It will be a fascinating observation to see how this particular team faces adversity, because the talent is there to be great, but the schedule provides challenges innumerable.
Question 3: Youth is served.
Speaking of all that talent, what should we expect from this seven-man class of 2018? It will be a very mixed bag. You should count on Dosunmu, Giorgi, and Feliz playing significant minutes and being big contributors to the success of the season. I would say Samba Kane, Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones should see some minutes to spell starters and inject some life of things get lackluster. Anthony Higgs has tremendous upside, but his conditioning needs an upgrade and he's already dealing with an injury. I wouldn't expect much his first year.
That leaves fifth-year transfer Adonis De La Rosa. Coming back from a major injury is always tough, but it sounds like he's ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation. That's good news, because he could be the difference maker in the low post we are craving right now. It just won't be until December or January, which is unfortunate, but could pay off big when he returns.
This is a very interesting team. It should be a very fun team. One that makes a lot of mistakes, but can score in bunches. The opportunity is there to be a tough, respectable team. Maybe even a tournament team. It's going to take a lot to go right, but the talent of this team is unassailable.
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