Illinois wrapped up its summer practices Tuesday, and head coach Brad Underwood has high expectations for his squad, even after an underwhelming debut year with the program and only having four returning players.
“You talk about the cliché, ‘The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.’ It’s also the same thing from the first year to the second year in a program. You have veterans who know and understand what’s expected,” Underwood said on Tuesday. “This group has been very, very good at that this summer.”
Strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher has been a vital reason for so many of these transitions and improvements that fans see year to year. He recently shared a video on his Twitter account that showed Illinois sophomore star Trent Frazier with practically his whole arm above the rim.
“[Fletcher’s] the best in the country,” Underwood said. “We’re very fortunate to have him.”
The new guys are also settling into campus life nicely. Tevian Jones added almost 10 pounds over the summer, according to Underwood. Jones will likely get substantial minutes right from the start of the season. With Jones’ added strength, it gives Underwood a little more creativity in his lineups, perhaps running with Jones at the four in small-ball situations.
Underwood also noted transitions for other fellow freshman this summer. For Ayo Dosunmu, it was increasing his quickness and vertical and adding leg strength. Dosunmu’s defense gave opposing teams fits this summer during his time with Team USA. His length in the backcourt with some added muscle gives Dosunmu the capability to match up with almost any perimeter player in the country and stand tit for tat.
Kipper Nichols is another guy who has transitioned his body this offseason, losing 10-11 pounds that Underwood said has “helped him in every aspect of his game, especially on the defensive side.”
And then there are newcomers like Alan Griffin and Andres Feliz who can shoot the lights out of the gym for an Illini team that struggled to shoot the ball from behind the arc last season. With multiple outside threats this season in Frazier, Feliz, Jones, Griffin, Jordan, etc. the offense can spread the floor a little better. And with teams honoring the three-point line, driving lanes should open for Nichols, Dosunmu, and Williams.
But the freshman flying under a lot of fans’ radars? Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who might also have the biggest personality on the team.
“Giorgi has done everything we had hoped and more,” Underwood said. “He’s got a mature game based on IQ and feel.”
Underwood also mentioned a stretch where Bezhanishvili wasn’t sleeping particularly well, and he’d come in before 6 a.m. most mornings to meet with Coach Fletcher.
“That’s the kind of commitment that winners have,” Underwood flaunted.
But no one received higher praise from the head coach than sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams.
“In my 30 years, I’ve been hard pressed to find anyone who’s improved more from one season to the next than Da’Monte Williams. What he’s physically done with his body, what he’s done with his game, it’s like adding a completely different player,” Underwood said.
Williams averaged 3.5 points and 2.9 rebounds in just under 17 minutes per game last season. Granted, he missed most of his senior season with an ACL tear and most of last offseason recovering. Illinois fans haven’t seen a healthy Williams suit up for the Illini yet, and a full offseason for the legacy recruit might be what he needed to take his game to the next level.
This summer’s questions
This summer has also posed a couple questions for Underwood. With just one player over 6-foot-7 getting a full summer to practice, what will the frontcourt look like come this winter? Regarding Samba Kane, the 7-footer from Senegal, things are just being taken day-to-day with his absence from the team to take care of academics.
“We expect him to be here and in uniform when school starts up in the fall,” Underwood said.
Not exactly a confident answer from the Illinois head coach on what was supposed to be a late, diamond in the rough find on the recruiting trail.
Illinois also welcomed in graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa, a 7-footer from Kent State. And although De La Rosa is on campus and with the team, he’s still nursing a knee injury from his last game with Kent State. There’s been talk that he might be back mid-December, but Underwood isn’t ready to put a timetable out for a return yet.
“He’s a proven rebounder, an extremely skilled guy. It’s been fun having him around this summer on the sideline because you can sense his IQ and feel for the game,” Underwood remarked.
De La Rosa averaged just under 12 points and eight rebounds a game last season for the Golden Flashes and would give Illinois some much needed frontcourt experience.
Underwood also mentioned Anthony Higgs, another late signee in the class of 2018.
“Anthony is a piece that we didn’t have,” Underwood said. “He’s 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, a 230-235-pound guy that has a physical presence about him to go along with athleticism. We’re excited for him to step on campus.”
The Illini have some serious young talent in the backcourt right now with Frazier, Dosunmu, and Jones. But two of those are freshmen, and it has been up to Frazier to step up this offseason and show the younger guys how Underwood’s system works.
“I think everyone has an understanding that Trent is a very good player, and he’s proven it at a very high level. And yet, Trent’s as competitive as any guy I’ve coached, and he wants to win. And he knows to win, he’s got to have Ayo, he’s got to have Giorgi. Trent’s not afraid, he’s got tremendous swagger. He’s not afraid to lead. He’s been very assertive on the court, much more so than last year. And I’m demanding that from him.”
The non-conference schedule was released Tuesday and it’s not exactly a walk in the park for a 14-18 team that returns just four players. The Illini travel to Hawaii to take part in an ultra-competitive Maui Invitational this season, welcome Georgetown and UNLV to the State Farm Center, and also travel to South Bend to play Notre Dame.
“The schedule is obviously one of the best in the country, and I said when I came here that we were going to play really good people. I think when you’re building and establishing, let’s go play the best. Let’s set the standard. I think people need to understand that I’m not going to run away from anybody. Illinois Basketball is going to stand for something, and this schedule is part of what we’re going to stand for.”
But the expectations are the same for Underwood, regardless of the youth and inexperience.
“At the end of the day, come conference time, if we’re not ready to play, then shame on me. That’s not going to happen. We’re going to play the best. If there’s some speed bumps along the way, then those are growing pains and we’ll take those.”
For his squad to be successful this season, his players will have to catch those growing pains in stride and learn from last season.
“We’re at the University of Illinois. We’re one of the best programs in the country.”
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