We might never get another Aaron Jordan or Malcolm Hill — a four-year scholarship player who never makes a NCAA Tournament. The closest the Illini might get again is with Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, and the two of them still have two years to make a tourney (which is most definitely the expectation right now).
Clearly, those two players (Frazier and Williams) are only juniors, and they’re only considered because the two seniors on this year’s team don’t qualify by that logic. There’s Andres Feliz, who enters his second and final year with the Illini, and Kipper Nichols, who technically is playing his fourth season for Illinois, but didn’t play the entire 2016-17 season.
So, these are the culture changers, but not the program changers that Brad Underwood brought in.
2018-19 Stats: 33 GP (4 starts), 8.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 74 assists, 51 turnovers, 33 steals, 45% FG (27% 3-point FG, 75.5% FT)
You can call Dre a “glue guy” for this 2019-20 team, but I’d go even further and call him the damn thing that is holding this team together. Last year Feliz was a bit of an unknown, even if we knew he was pretty decent. He could always come off the bench and provide a spark for the team — now, we know he can do that, and he’ll need to.
With teams cracking down on Ayo and Trent (and to not tire anyone out), it’s so important Feliz can be that guy off the bench again. Plus, just think of some of his moments (especially against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament) show how aggressive he can be driving at the rim. And his defense. We love his defense.
Barring injuries, Feliz likely won’t start any games this year, but that’s fine. To have a veteran winner on the bench who accepts his role is huge. If his three-point shooting improves to about 35 percent and he can get to the line a bit more, that 10 PPG is going to be huge for a team looking to be ranked.
Brad knows he can count on Andres whenever, and he shouldn’t be afraid to.
2018-19 Stats: 33 games (14 starts), 5.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 36 assists, 27 turnovers, 10 blocks, 19 steals, 42.7% FG (21.9% 3-point FG, 57.9% FT)
If you had Kipper still on this Illinois team as a scholarship player in 2019-20, you’re lying. To be honest, I’m stunned he’s still on the team. I’m not upset by any means — I’m glad he’s stuck around — but he wasn’t supposed to last this long.
Especially when he was benched at points last year.
There was a significant drop-off from his sophomore to junior seasons, and it might be even more severe as a senior. Kip likely won’t start 14 games or play too much overall, but Nichols really always seems to have a good attitude, and, it’s cliche, but can show the younger guys the ropes. There’s nothing wrong with that.
When it comes down to it, he’s not a three-point shooter, a free throw shooter, or a shooter. His ball handling isn’t guard-level, and his size can’t compete with Big Ten bigs, especially when the Illini have some bigger guys now.
But Brad will find a role for him, and if Kipper’s effort is there, he’ll play it well and hopefully help the team win a bit.