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The Illinois Basketball Preview: Make Us Feel Alive Again

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The Illini are young and unproven — but they need to start overachieving now.

Illinois Basketball Twitter | @IlliniMBB

College basketball is here.

Eight Big Ten teams are in action tonight as college basketball tips off across the country. The Fighting Illini will open play against Evansville on Thursday in the State Farm Center.

This is my favorite season of the entire sports year, and this team brings with it a lot of excitement and hope. I’m going to use the next couple of hundred words to ground myself and give this team a proper preview.

The State of The Program

Brad Underwood is entering his second season at the helm of the Illinois Basketball program, and he’s already left his mark. There are only two (2) scholarship players left on the roster who played under John Groce: Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols. Underwood has completely cleaned house, including clearing out 60% of his initial recruiting class from a year ago.

There’s no more “These aren’t Underwood’s guys” or “These guys don’t fit hit system.”

These are his guys. They are supposed to fit what he wants to do. Yes, they are young and there are going to be growing pains, but we can strike away many of the excuses we used all of last season.

This is the foundation of the Underwood era. This year really counts. All of it, the good and the bad. After this season we should have far more questions answered about the direction of the program than we do right now.

It’s imperative that we see progress and growth this year and that all 10 players expected to return next year get better and stay with the program. Underwood used up his margin for error in his first two offseasons at Illinois. These guys need to stick.

That’s especially true since the staff has failed to pick up a commitment for the class of 2019. Most of the highly rated, priority targets are off the board and off to rival schools. It’s looking very likely that Illinois will not be picking up a top-150 talent in the class of 2019. Let’s be honest — that’s never ideal. However, if the current roster pans out and sticks together, there’s nothing wrong with using the class of 2019 to add depth and fill in the cracks, and coming back for the blue chippers in 2020. But in order for that strategy to work, the class of 2018 must be a success. And we have to be comfortable with the 10 guys that are on this roster and project to be on the 2019-20 roster. There are no more mulligans.

What Success Looks Like

I’m not clamoring for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Big Ten may be worse than last year, when it could only muster four bids to the big dance. Hopefully, the conference can squeeze in a few more teams this season, but it remains highly unlikely that the Illini are able to cross into that tier.

That doesn’t mean wins and losses are irrelevant. The tagline we’ve heard all offseason is how this is the toughest schedule in program history. And maybe it is.... but maybe, just maybe, it isn’t.

Illinois now plays 20 conference games, which by itself could make it the toughest schedule in program history. But like I mentioned, the Big Ten is down, and there are winnable games all over the Big Ten schedule. Seven of the 11 non-conference opponents are high major basketball teams, and that is certainly a shift from past seasons. However, Gonzaga is the only true elite team in that group of seven.

Preseason rankings are pointless. So, so, incredibly pointless. But I’m going to cite them right now. Illinois only has four teams on it’s schedule ranked in the preseason top 25, and only one non-conference foe ranked in the top 25. Georgetown, UNLV and Missouri are good programs, but there’s no reason this Illini team can’t compete with or beat any of them. The Big Ten is mediocre. We aren’t staring at a Big Ten with five Sweet Sixteen teams. Illinois needs to step up and beat teams they aren’t expected to as we sit here on November 6.

Illinois needs to protect homecourt, especially in conference. The guards need to prove this pressure defense can work at the high-major level. The spread offense needs to be second nature, and everyone needs to be able to play in it. And most importantly, the freshmen have to show promise, even if they can’t reach their full potential this season.

Three Big Questions

These questions revolve around the health and ceiling of the program. They will basically answer the overarching question, “Can Underwood be the guy to turn Illinois into a winner in the near future?”

1. Can an underclassman grab starters minutes on the wing?

I’m looking at you, Da’Monte Williams and Tevian Jones. Aaron Jordan has been a great player for four long and hard years in Champaign, but he won’t be here next year. And as much as I love AJ, his game is limited. He never really broke through and became a difference-maker at the high major level. Jordan plays hard as hell, and has become a tenacious rebounder and reliable defender in addition to a solid marksman, but he’s limited and relatively one-dimensional.

If this team is going to overachieve this year, or push for a tournament bid next year, someone is going to have to step up and demand more minutes. Williams has the versatility, instincts and defensive ceiling to do it. Tevian Jones has the offense versatility and athleticism to do it. One of them needs to step up, hopefully they both do.

Like most Illini fans, I think Da’Monte Williams is going to break out. If he shoots 33% from three he will become one of the team’s most valuable players. He already has all the tools, and all the instincts. He makes the right play and know his defensive assignment every single time. I will be genuinely shocked if we don’t see Da’Monte take a huge sophomore leap and basically force Underwood to give him some of Aaron Jordan’s minutes.

That would set up the 2019-20 Illini very nicely.

2. Are these freshmen bigs stop-gaps, or solutions?

Can Bezhanisvilli and Kane be the answer? Can they be the rotating twin towers that these electric guards and wings can play around for the next four years? Or is this simply a different verse to last year’s song that featured Eboigbodin and Vesel? (Note: ‘Matic and the Spicy G’s’ is an absolutely electric band name.)

For Underwood, these guys need to stick. Bigs take longer to develop than guards and wings. This program can’t afford to start over with freshmen bigs next season, because they need to win next season. Next year Illinois has a chance to have one of the deepest and most talented backcourts in the entire country, and they can’t be held back by a frontcourt held together with paper clips and bubble gum. G-Bez and Kane aren’t ready to play a combined 40 minutes a game this year, and that’s okay, but they need to get better as the year progresses. Their minutes and production on both ends need to steadily improve week after week.

If these guys turn into building blocks, and not temporary fixes, the Brad Underwood era has a real chance at success.

3. What is the ceiling on the Ayo Dosunmu + Trent Frazier backcourt?

I think it may already be the best backcourt duo in the Big Ten. Throw in Feliz and Williams and the Illini may have the best “small guards” in the conference.

College basketball is about guard play. The NCAA tournament is about guard play. This offensive system is about guard play. If I already think Underwood has the one of the best backcourts in the conference, that means there’s a chance by 2019-20 he could have one of the best backcourts in the country. Any way you look at it, Ayo + Trent is probably the best guard talent Illinois has had on the same roster since the mid-to-late-2000s (yes, better than Brandon and DJ).

If that assessment proves to be true, and Ayo and Trent turn out to be one of the best collegiate backcourts over the next 2-3 years, then you cannot waste the opportunity. If Dosunmu and Frazier are as talented as we all believe, then Underwood has to win with them. There will be no excuses.

As a college basketball fan, these are the two perfect young talents to build a program around.

Season Predictions

Okay we’ve made it to the fun part.

Every year I go through the same cycle. The season ends in disappointing fashion and I tell myself to not get my hopes up for next year and that we are still a long way away. Then it’s three weeks until the first game, and I’m drowning in practice reports and asking myself “Is Michigan really a guaranteed loss?”. Then I try to ground myself and come to a reasonable conclusion. Not too high, not too low.

This season is going to be frustrating. There are 8 new players; that matters. We are young and thin on the front line; that really matters. There are high major opponents everywhere you look. I’ll admit that matters too.

But this team is picked to finish 13th in the conference and I just don’t see it. The guards are too good and we are going to be too good on offense. Here are my official predictions.

Record: 16-15 (9-11 in the B1G), 9th in the B1G Conference

Postseason: None

All B1G: Trent Frazier — 3rd Team All-B1G, Ayo Dosunmu — All-Freshman, Kipper Nichols — Honorable Mention

I think the Illini will beat Georgetown, UNLV and go 1-3 between the three Maui games and the Braggin’ Rights game. I think the Illini play much better at the State Farm Center this year and win 6-7 Big Ten home games, propelling them to eight or nine conference wins.

Trent will lead the team in scoring and lead the Illini to a Top 50 KenPom Offense. The defense will continue to give up a lot of points due to the high-possession style and lack of size, but it will be evident that Nichols/Bezhanishvilli/Kane is no worse than Black/Finke/Eboigbodin on the defensive end.

It’s going to be a frustrating campaign, and at the end of it we will look back and tell ourselves that we probably had the talent to get to 20 wins, but we just weren’t ready. But next year we will be. And instead of feeling downtrodden heading into the offseason, we will be looking at a 2019-20 team that will be picked to finish in the top half of the conference and make its triumphant return to big dance.

College basketball is back folks. Oskee-Wow-Wow.

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