Stephen Cohn: Assuming Illinois Football does not qualify for a bowl game, this is it for me as an undergrad: If Illinois Basketball doesn’t make the the NCAA Tournament, I’m part of the first graduating class in god knows how long that didn’t see a bowl game or tourney bid. That’s insane. With that in mind, I guess I have some pretty excessive predictions. I thought I saw a really good Kipper in the exhibition — despite 1-for-10 shooting — and I love Trent/Ayo/Andres in the backcourt. That’s a team I’d watch. Illinois wasn’t tested last season like they will be this year, so maybe Underwood can pull out the stops to beat Georgetown, Gonzaga and Missouri. Do that, win your 4 low-conference games, and win 12 in the Big Ten. That’s 19 wins, and you’re a bubble team. Win one more, and you’re in. Let’s go.
Record: 21-12 Postseason: NCAAT 1st Round
Matt O’Neall: This team is too good offensively to finish 13th in the conference. It’s a young team with a tough schedule out of the gate which will ultimately hamper the ceiling on the win loss record. But a weak Big Ten provides plenty of winnable games. This team will get better as the season goes on and this backcourt will lead the Illini to one of the best offenses in the conference. Nine Big Ten wins will be enough to overachieve, but not enough to crack the top third of the conference and contend for a tournament bid.
For more on Matt’s predictions and preview of this season, check out his longer preview here.
Record: 16-15. Postseason: None
Kyle Huisinga: I feel as if this team fits what Underwood wants a lot better than last year. There’s skill in the back court. There’s youth and effort in the front court. Add Adonis De La Rosa to the mix in late December/early January and this team could take off. Frazier will add to his already accomplished resume. Ayo works his way into Big Ten Freshman of the Year conversations. The only reasons I don’t see drastic improvement is the early struggles with the low post game and the difficult schedule. I can see a tournament team, however, if things gel at the right time. It’ll be a fascinating season and team to watch.
Record: 20-11. Postseason: Just Missed
Michael Berns: Adding on to what Kyle is saying, this team is a lot more in the mold of what coach Brad Underwood wants in his squad than it was last season. It’s much better equipped to handle the small-ball, shoot-under-7-seconds-or-less tempo we expect from an Underwood coached team. That said, it’s pretty much a complete roster overhaul with nine guys leaving and eight new guys coming in. There will be growing pains in the first half of the season as those players learn how to play together in the midst of a challenging non-conference slate that includes a trip to Maui against some of the best teams in the country. Long story, short: Slow out of the gate, but Illini are significantly better in conference play than they were last season.
Record: 19-13. Postseason: Just Missed
Tristen Kissack: I have a much better feeling with this year’s team than I did last year. Illinois has one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten (yes, I said it), and I think Brad Underwood finally has what he wants on this roster — length. That being said, the non-conference schedule is extremely tough this year, and he’ll be relying on freshmen to provide most of the minutes in the frontcourt. To me, this season hinges on whether or not Giorgi and Samba can hold their own to start the year. De La Rosa should return from his ACL injury right around the start of conference play, and then, Illinois finally has a true big man with some experience. Expect to see flashes of what this team could be this year, but they were still be growing pains and inconsistency with such a young roster.
Record: 17-14. Postseason: Out
Thumpasaurus: Man, I want to be hopeful. This would be a great non-conference schedule for a Statement Year, but we don’t quite have a complete enough roster for that just yet. We’ve turned over virtually the whole roster, and the only returning thing that can be banked on is Trent Frazier’s ability to score. Ayo is about as sure a thing as it gets, but virtually every other component of the team’s success can only be evaluated by how they’ve done in practice so far, and that always has to be taken with a grain of salt because everyone else’s players are also “in the best shape of their lives” and “possible surprise NBA picks” and so forth. Sure, it’s POSSIBLE that we easily replace Black’s contributions and our freshman bigs do a better job at stopping drives, but there’s no actual game results from any of the players we’re counting on to step up, save Trent, Kipper, Jordan and Williams. My expectation, therefore, is an improved Big Ten record, but not for Illinois to suddenly compete near the top.
Record: 13-19. Postseason: Nope.
Jacob Rajlich: I’m looking forward to Illinois Basketball this year, and am the most optimistic I’ve been in a while. However, I don’t think we’re all the way to being a tournament contender this year. Illinois is a young team yet again, and I don’t think they have the bigs or the experience they need to succeed against a tough non-conference slate or against many Big Ten opponents. I’m excited to see how Trent, Kipper and Ayo perform this season, but I think the biggest X-factor to the Illini’s success this year will be Andres Feliz. I was impressed by his performance in the exhibition game, and how he had a “quiet” 20-point game. If he can continue to have big performances while flying under the radar, that could be huge for the Illini.
Record: 17-14, Postseason: Nope
Matt Rejc: It’s tough to get a read on this team. On the one hand, there’s talented players who seem ready to make an impact this year. But on the other hand, everyone is still so young and inexperienced. Since Brad Underwood runs a fairly unconventional defense, the learning curve for the many newcomers on this roster will be steep. As we’ve seen this year with football, we’re going to see a lot of problems and mistakes with a few lightbulb moments interspersed. We’ll do a lot of losing this year, particularly in conference play. But by the end of it we should at least have an understanding of where this program is supposed to be going.
Record: 16-16. Postseason: None.
Mark Schaer: Oh boy, am I ready to get overly excited about another basketball season that will just end up disappointing me in the end! In reality, I think the fact that only four players are returning to Brad Underwood’s second season is both good and bad. Sure, the guys who don’t “fit the system” left, but having four returning players is unprecedented. That being said, I think the four most important guys (outside of Greg Eboigbodin) to this roster decided to stick around. And all the replacements appear on tape to be significant upgrades. Ayo will most certainly be better than Mark Smith (see handles and defense) and Andres Feliz is a much better shooter than Te’Jon. I think once Giorgi and Samba gain experience and strength, they can be quality starters. And Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones bring athleticism and shooting abilities this team was lacking. If Adonis De La Rosa can get healthy, this team could be pretty good. Unfortunately, I don’t think that translates into 20+ wins this year -- at least not yet. These guys will need some time to figure out the system, and this year’s schedule is brutal. That being said, I do expect a better outcome than 4-14 in the Big Ten. And it should be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Record: 16-15. Postseason: Probs not
Austin Jabs: I look at this team and, frankly, I can’t make out what I expect to see. I do believe the team we see take the court Thursday night to open the regular season won’t be the same team we see in March talentwise. This is a young team that will surely improve as the year goes on. Ayo playing alongside Frazier gives me an excitement I have not felt about Illinois basketball for some time now. I expect to see plenty of three guard sets on the court by Underwood, akin to the Weber (kill me for saying this) glory days. Giorgi and Samba can be serviceable big men as the season goes on but there will be plenty of growing pains to start out the season. Add in one of the tougher schedules in the Big Ten and that adds up to a season that features a few upsets and a few headscratchers. I think the Illini will come in to the Big Ten Tournament with the best team they have had all season long and make it to Saturday, narrowly missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid, but winning the NIT Tournament to set up a fun 2019-2020 resurgence.
Record: 18-13 Postseason: NIT Champs
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