There’s been some buzz about Illini Football recently, with the signings of Fabian McCray and Camilo Eifler. That’s great — McCray is an in-state get that Lovie desperately needed to land, and Eifler will provide some stability at linebacker moving forward. But the rebuild that’s been more impactful for me is the one happening on the court.
If you’ve paid any attention to the last month or two, you saw Parker Braun rise and fall off the boards and what appeared to be a lackluster effort to land a lackluster recruit in Dima Zador, who ended up at Weber State.
Then, BOOM: Anthony Higgs, fresh off being released from his letter of intent at Ole Miss, commits to Underwood.
Then, again, BOOM: Adonis De La Rosa, the 7-foot grad transfer, also chooses Illinois.
This is great. Both guys over 6-foot-8, adding some depth and length to the team. Underwood and Antigua may have finally gotten a solid long-term front court in Kane, Higgs and Giorgi. De La Rosa, a grad transfer, might provide some meaningful minutes next season.
I’m here to tell you it’s great, but you need to still curb your expectations. Let’s not forget all the departures this team had from last season. Michael Finke, Leron Black, Mark Smith, Te’Jon Lucas and Greg Eboigbodin all decided to take their talents elsewhere in one way or another. That leaves Aaron Jordan, Trent Frazier, Kipper Nichols and Da’Monte Williams as the only returners. Two of those guys were freshmen last year, and Williams was fresh off an ACL tear and saw limited time as it was.
Those four guys combined for 82.3 minutes per game. Frazier had the highest total, with 26.3 minutes per game.
The turnover is going to hurt. It’s another big reset, right after last year featured a lot of young guys playing a lot of minutes.
That being said, the incoming recruiting class looks impressive. Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz are almost sure to have an impact early. Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones look like they can develop into something special (Griffin’s highlight reel that the team compiled is something I’ve watched over and over), and Samba Kane could be a real difference maker on defense down the road. Giorgi is an unknown, but one I’m still excited about in the pinch-post. Higgs and De La Rosa look like legitimate Big Ten contenders. Of course, Adonis is fresh off his own ACL tear.
The fact of that matter is there are still a lot of question marks on this team. Anyone over 6-foot-6 has not played a minute on the court for Underwood and his coaching staff. Let’s not forget how difficult their schedule will be next year:
Illinois will have 27 high-major games in 18-19. 20 Big Ten, three in Maui, Georgetown (Gavitt), UNLV, at ND (ACC/Big Ten), and Missouri (neutral). The epitome of brutality.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) June 2, 2018
Having a schedule like this with the inexperience (and frankly, uncertainty of the roster) this team has is a disaster in the making. Illinois will be lucky to have the same win total as this season. Let me repeat: there are four returning players. FOUR.
Da’Monte will still need to get a feel for the game.
Adonis probably won’t be back, at best, until mid-December. And will he even be the same?
Ayo is just a freshman — it’s going to take a little bit of the season for him to get used to the game.
Did you think post defense was bad last year? It’s likely to be just as bad this year. That’s assuming Kane actually makes it to campus. I’m not betting any of my savings on that one, although I hope he does.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be progress with this team. Expect Kipper to make a big leap this year, and Kane, Giorgi and Higgs will have steep learning curves that will only make them that better in the future. Trent looks like he has the confidence to be the face of this team for the next few years. And all the recruits seem to have one factor that past classes have not had: athleticism. (Just look at how Anthony Higgs can dunk. Pretty exciting.)
So what should we expect? Probably some early close calls, tough losses to UNLV and Notre Dame, and a similar B1G season. My guess is Underwood won’t allow the guys to lose in the fashion they did so many times last year (remember that Maryland game?), but who’s to say?
If you’re expecting 20 wins and an NCAA tournament berth, take a step back and be happy there looks to be a long-term plan in place.