The dominos continue to fall (the wrong way) for Illinois Basketball.
Forward Greg Eboigbodin is the latest Illini to transfer from the program. He joins Mark Smith, Michael Finke, Te’Jon Lucas and Matic Vesel as the other transfers, while Leron Black left the program to pursue opportunities to play professionally.
The transfer comes at an odd time with the incoming freshmen about to join the team soon, and Eboigbodin was in line to be the starting center for the Illini this upcoming season.
Nevertheless, the sun still rose today, and the program has to keep churning forward, so let’s take look into what Underwood and the coaching staff has to work with now and how some of the lineups could look.
The returning players (the Illini’s “Final Four”) include guards Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Aaron Jordan and forward Kipper Nichols, while they are welcoming in freshman guards Ayo Dosunmu, Alan Griffin and forwards Tevian Jones, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane. Illinois also added top JUCO point guard Andres Feliz, who will be a junior this upcoming year.
Looking through these nine names, there’s one thing that is blatantly noticeable and that’s the lack of size in the frontcourt. The only true center currently is the untested and raw Kane, and even though he’s an athletic seven-footer, you have no idea how he is going fair against the established post players in the Big Ten like Ethan Happ, Tyler Cook and Juwaun Moore.
So how do you compensate for this? Small ball or “positionless” basketball as Underwood and Co. like to refer to. At this point, the Illini don’t have much of a choice either.
Illinois is obviously going to look to add someone in the frontcourt before this season starts, but there a few potential lineups working with what’s currently left.
My “guesstimate” for the starting lineup come the fall is going to be Frazier and Dosunmu as your starting guards in the backcourt — that’s practically almost a gimme. Your starting small forward is going to be between Williams and Jordan, and that’ll just come down to which player is playing better at the time. These three positions are essentially going to be solidified between those players for the remainder of the season.
With Dosunmu and Griffin joining this group, you’re depth at the guard position is pretty strong with Feliz being a part of that as well. But if you’re an Illini fan, you’re not worried about the backcourt.
It’s in the frontcourt where things start getting a little messy. I think the starting power forward is going to be Nichols. Nichols played a solid amount of minutes at power forward last season, so it’s a position that isn’t unfamiliar to him and he clearly has the body to bang down low with most of the forwards in the Big Ten, beside the other guys I mentioned earlier.
A lot of the offensive load is going to be thrown on him this year too. It’s going to be his time to either show up and be the one of the leading scorers on this team and take advantage of the mismatches he would have offensively if he started at power forward, or fizzle out into the inconsistency we saw from him last year.
And I think your starting center at this point has to be Kane. He is the only forward on the roster that comes close to taking up that role for the team. Will it be a little rough at times? Yes, with how raw Kane is you’re going to experience a good amount of growing pains with him this season. And that’s okay because he is getting crucial experience as a freshman that many others don’t have the opportunity to have.
Frazier, Dosunmu, Jordan, Nichols and Kane is my predicted starting lineup. But throughout the game, you’re going to get a lot different lineups thrown out there. Jones and Bezhanishvili are going to get thrown in there, obviously, and when those guys check into the game, that’s when you really see positionless basketball take its form.
One small lineup idea that has been floating around here in Champaign is with Nichols getting some time at center and Jones at power forward. The benefit to this lineup is that you have so many different options offensively to flirt with. If Jones pans out, he should have a mismatch with his man out on the perimeter; same could be said for Nichols.
You have a fast and athletic lineup on the court that could maybe run the other team out of the gym in transition and quite possibly give everyone their first glance at this “seven-second offense” that Underwood teased Illini fans with when he arrived.
The cons? Rebounding, that’s a no brainer. Illinois was undersized last season, and with that lineup, you’re taking even more height out of the equation. That lineup can’t run in transition if they can’t rebound the ball and go, and if they’re not doing that, then what benefit do they give you having them on the court?
Another small-ball lineup could be having either Jones or Nichols at power forward and having Bezhanishvili at the center role. Bezhanishvili is an extremely skilled big man who you can run offense through and even have him be one of the main distributors with his passing ability.
A lineup like that kind of reminds of what the Denver Nuggets are currently doing with Nikola Jokic, having their offense run through him and be the main distributor (I AM NOT COMPARING BEZHANISHVILI TO JOKIC AT ALL SO DON’T EVEN). Offensively, you have so many options again with a quick, up-tempo style along with having a skilled big man playing the X-factor in all of that.
Defensively, Bezhanishvili will struggle to hold up. He’s not athletic and not a great defender or rebounder. He would be an instant mismatch for whatever big man is on him in the conference play and opposing offenses would hunt him down and abuse him. If you’re Illinois, you just have to hope that his offensive skillset (if there is one, still unproven also, obviously) can make up for him being a defensive liability.
Like I previously mentioned, the Illini will more than likely add one or two pieces in the frontcourt before this season starts, but there are a lot of routes for Underwood to go with what he currently has.
And one thing is for sure: Positionless basketball is going to be put to the test for Illinois this season, and, for those of you panicking, it’s only Underwood’s second season under the reins.
You can take that however you want.