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The Path Forward

How can Illini basketball get back on the winning track?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When it rains for Illinois Basketball, it really does pour.

Coming off one of the worst seasons in recent memory, the Illini have experienced the departures of Mark Smith, Matic Vesel and Greg Eboigbodin, along with the delayed arrival of Samba Kane. These developments compound a 2018 recruiting class largely filled with unproven talents (aside from Ayo Dosunmu and Tevian Jones) who will be playing for a team with way too many open scholarships and insufficient frontcourt depth.

It’s easy to get caught up in all of the negatives surrounding Illinois and become resigned to the (what at times) can seem like imminent failure. I don’t envy Brad Underwood’s situation one bit right now, but he is responsible for getting the Illini back to their winning ways. So, how should he do that?

The Illini really do have some great things going for them, and Underwood will need to maximize his returns from his best assets. What we do know is that Trent Frazier already has what it takes to drive the Illini offense, and Ayo Dosunmu is showing that he has the defensive talent and facilitation ability to be a complete player for his team:

It’s not a stretch to assume that much of the scoring over the next few seasons will come from those two guards, assuming neither leaves for the NBA. But no matter how good they are, Illinois will still need production from the post players, especially on the boards. If the Illini are consistently out-rebounded by taller and more athletic teams, then Frazier, Dosunmu and others will be facing an uphill battle to out-score other teams. That’s currently the case.

Freshmen big men by and large cannot be relied upon. Sometimes, even the most talented bigs in the country often look clueless their first year. Good big men in college require years of experience and quality coaching to properly develop.

Think about recent Illini big men like Meyers Leonard, Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan. All of them were almost unplayable their freshman seasons, but over time they became more reliable. Frontcourt experience will be a major factor for the Illini this upcoming season as no one on the roster over 6-foot-6 has a single game of experience at the college level.

This is where some of those open scholarships come into play. If Brad Underwood can fill some of them with experienced major conference players, then we may be able to bring young guys like Samba Kane, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Tevian Jones on with limited minutes while they get acclimated to the college game. That would be critical to preventing freshman mistakes from costing us games, as they did at times last season. (Anyone still have nightmares about inbound passes?)

Improvement next season is by no means guaranteed, and in fact with the current roster I think a regression is more likely, but adding experienced post players could bring some balance back to the roster and set the stage for a few more wins next season.

Signs of progress can be sold on the recruiting trail along with facilities upgrades, and Underwood will need all of the recruiting ammunition he can get to counteract recruits’ suspicions after seeing a majority of Underwood’s own recruits in the 2017 class transfer following one season.

If the Illini can gain upward momentum by improving in the 2018-19 season, then Underwood may be able to get the Illini back into the NCAA Tournament sooner rather than later.

But this is no small task.

Bruce Weber and John Groce inherited more talented rosters and still failed at Illinois. Can Brad Underwood overcome the odds stacked against him? Only time will tell.