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Projecting the Illini’s Starting Five

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Who should Underwood’s five starters be on opening night?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone’s favorite offseason exercise is figuring out the starting lineup for next season. It’s been especially fun this year with all of the unexpected departures and additions to the roster. I have a note on my phone dedicated to the Illini depth chart where I mix and match whatever players are on the roster at that moment. Needless to say, it’s been a very stressful exercise this offseason.

Before we dive into this trivial task, we need to talk about something: positionless basketball. I’m so tired of hearing “positionless basketball”. Not because I don’t believe in it or like it. I love it, it’s enjoyable to watch, it’s what every team in the NBA is trying to do and it’s the next evolution of the game. However, it has basically become a throwaway term on Illini basketball Twitter.

Some people talk about positionless basketball as if Underwood invented it, or if the two teams in last year’s National Championship game didn’t execute it to perfection. Positionless basketball means that all of the players on the floor have the ability to adequately shoot, pass and, ideally, put the ball on the floor. It also means that that everyone has the size and length to matchup with multiple players on the opposing team. At the end of the day, you are what you can guard.

Is Underwood’s offense positionless? Yes, it’s very fluid and switchable and requires skillful players at every position. Does that mean he wants to play five people under 6-foot-7? No. It also doesn’t mean that there are no more guards and no more forwards and everyone is the same. The positions on the court still follow the same guiding principles that they always have. Underwood and many modern basketball minds are just trying to make those definitions as flexible as possible.

The Guys

Illinois currently has 11 scholarship players on it’s roster. Here they are, in all of their glory, listed from shortest to tallest:

Trent Frazier, 6’1”, Sophomore

Andres Feliz, 6’2”, Junior

Da’Monte Williams, 6’3”, Sophomore

Ayo Dosunmu, 6’5”, Freshman

Alan Griffin, 6’5”, Freshman

Aaron Jordan, 6’5”, Senior

Kipper Nichols, 6’6”, Junior

Tevian Jones, 6’7”, Freshman

Anthony Higgs, 6’8”, Freshman

Giorgi Bezhanishvilli, 6’9”, Freshman

Samba Kane, 7’0”, Freshman

Wow, that’s a lot of freshmen. They’re probably all a little shorter than that, but whatever. Higgs and Kane aren’t quite on campus yet, but I don’t want to think of the universe where they don’t end up here, so let’s just agree to assume that they are here.

The Positions

Since many people don’t like labels such as “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” or “PG, SG, SF, PF, C” anymore, we will label the positions like this:

  • Guard, Guard, Guard/Wing, Wing/Forward, Forward

Next, let’s throw our guys into those buckets.

  • Guards: Frazier, Feliz, Dosunmu, Williams
  • Wings: Jones, Nichols, Griffin, Jordan
  • Forwards: Higgs, Bezhanishvilli, Kane

We could argue over where these guys are bucketed. Are Griffin and Jordan technically guards? Probably. Does Higgs project more as a wing than a forward? Sure.

But I think this is where they fit best in context of the 2018-19 Illinois Basketball roster. I don’t think we will see a lineup where two of the four “Guards” listed above are not on the floor at the same time. That’s why I’m throwing Griffin and Jordan into the “Wing” bucket for the this upcoming year.

With Illinois’ lack of size and experience, everyone is going to be playing up a spot from the position they probably think they should be playing.

The Starting Five

Guard — Trent Frazier

Trent Frazier set the world on fire last year and is probably the best pure scorer on this year’s team. He’s not terribly big, but his speed and aggressiveness make up for his lack of strength and length on defense.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

He’s only a sophomore, but Trent has established himself as the face of the program and the team’s go-to option on offense when things break down. This one’s a lock.

Guard — Ayo Dosunmu

This one is also a lock but it may be the last lock on the roster. Not all freshmen are built to start right away. Ayo Dosunmu is not all freshmen.

The prized recruit from Chicago was always going to start from day one, even if the coach didn’t think he was ready. Luckily for Underwood, Ayo is ready. It was easy to tell that the game moves at a different speed for him just from watching him play for Team USA at the U18’s a few weeks ago. Ayo’s IQ, length and skillset are off the charts and are unrivaled by anyone else on the team.

Defense also usually keeps freshmen off the floor, but Ayo is a great perimeter defender and Underwood will love his ability to pressure the ball, so don’t be shocked if he’s guarding the other team’s best guy.

If all goes according to plan, Trent and Ayo will be your starting backcourt all year long.

Guard/Wing — Da’Monte Williams

This is where it starts getting interesting.

I think it’s going to be Da’Monte Williams. Like many, I’m incredibly high on Williams. Even though he’s only 6-foot-3, he has incredible length and athleticism. I believe his tools combined with healthy knees and a full offseason will turn him into this team’s best defender. Williams also has some of the team’s best rebounding instincts. I just don’t see any way that Underwood doesn’t start his best defender. Williams’ glaring weakness was his three-point shot. Floor spacing is incredibly important, but if he can just shoot 30 percent from three, we’ll witness an incredible sophomore leap this season.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan and Griffin are two other options who could fill this spot. Griffin has to prove it on the defensive end and prove that he knows the system at a proficient level before he gets a starting nod.

And I think Aaron Jordan is built to be the perfect sixth man. He’s not as good of playmaker or athlete as Williams, and hasn’t shown much else on offense other than occasional spot up shooting, but what he does well is work really damn hard. He plays his tail off on defense and really impressed me on the boards last season. He’s also the oldest guy on the team and Underwood may just trust him more by the time the season tips off. With that said, I’d be very surprised if he were still in the starting lineup by the end of the year when Underwood will be trying to develop some of the younger guys. If there’s one guy who I’ve left off my starting five who I think could be there on opening night, it’s AJ.

The guy I want to see start is freshman Tevian Jones. I think his game is incredibly tantalizing, and I wrote about how exciting of a prospect he was before he committed. But he is a freshmen, and I think Underwood is going to have more trust in either Williams or Jordan to start the year. My bold(ish) prediction is that Jones will finish the year as the starter in this Guard/Wing spot.

Underwood could go small with Feliz, and there will definitely be times this year when we see Frazier/Dosunmu/Feliz. Yet, I think we only see that backcourt when Underwood feels the game is slipping away from his squad.

Wing/Forward — Kipper Nichols

The team’s success really hinges on Kipper Nichols. I can guarantee you that he doesn’t think of himself as a “4”, but the most successful version of this current roster is the one where Kipper completely buys in and gives Underwood an incredible 25-30 minutes playing up a spot. That means guarding a bigger guy on the other end of the floor, giving effort on the glass every possession, setting good screens and just working his ass off. It also probably means he doesn’t get as many three-point attempts or general usage on offense since the team will need him to spend his energy in a lot of other areas, in addition to scoring.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nobody on the roster who will have to sacrifice more than Kipper, but there’s also no other viable option for Underwood for reliable minutes at the four.

You just have to hope that Anthony Higgs can give you 10-plus solid minutes a night off the bench at this position by the time B1G play tips off this year, too.

I’m pretty ecstatic with this pickup this late in the recruiting cycle. Higgs is long, athletic and can stretch the floor. He was committed to Ole Miss and had a Louisville offer before picking Illinois. I like him more than some of the other names Illinois had been connected to in recent months because he’s the perfect archetype for this system. There’s a real chance he can be the “4” of the future by his sophomore or junior year.

My ultimate small ball fantasy is Aaron Jordan playing spot minutes at the “4”. A lineup of Frazier/Feliz/Dosunmu/Jordan/Bezhanisvili would be so fun. It might be a disaster, but I really hope we get to see it.

Forward/Center - Samba Kane

Samba Kane is seven-feet tall, so if he can adequately protect the rim and catch lobs he should start right away and get 20-plus minutes a night, provided that he can stay out of foul trouble. I love Samba’s upside and what he projects to be, and any shooting or offensive game Illinois gets from Samba during his Illini career is icing on the cake.

His job next year? Run the floor. Catch lobs. Block shots. Grab boards. That’s it.

Giorgi Bezhanishvilli is slated to get backup minutes at the big-man spot, so I hope these two freshmen are ready to anchor this team. Giorgi has a great skillset and will be able to cause some matchup problems with his passing and three-point shooting. With that said, there’s no telling if he — or any of these freshmen (excluding Ayo) — are ready to play major minutes right away.

There are going to be a lot of games where these two freshmen each pick up two first half fouls and Kipper Nichols is going to be asked to play center for the last eight minutes of the half. Those are going to be dark times for all of us, but at least we will have each other.

So, where did we end up?

The starting five to open the year is Frazier/Dosunmu/Williams/Nichols/Kane with Jones finishing the year in that group.

That leaves us with a bench unit mainly comprising of Feliz/Jones/Jordan/Bezhanishvilli. If there are injuries or foul trouble I think we could see more of Griffin/Higgs, but for now I’d assume they are going to have the most to prove to the coaching staff.

Tell me why I’m wrong and what the lineup and rotation should look like in the comments!

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