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The Illinois Basketball Preview: Dance Yourself Clean

The Illini have a chance to dance and wash away a decade of disappointment.


State of the Program

Last season I titled the season preview, ‘Make Us Feel Alive Again.’

And it took them a while, but for a brief moment they did. The team got off to an incredibly slow start, and struggled with the most difficult schedule in school history. They lost a program-record 21 games. But there were signs of life. Impressive freshman campaigns from Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezshanishvili kept spirits afloat during a dismal 4-12 beginning. A four-game conference winning streak highlighted by a shocking upset of top-10 Michigan State at the State Farm Center was the glimmer of hope the fan base needed. We felt alive again.

Now, suddenly, there are expectations. Real, legitimate expectations.

Local and national pundits have predicted the Illini to finish in the top half of the Big Ten and return to the NCAA Tournament. Ayo Dosunmu is a consensus preseason All-Big Ten First Teamer as well as a projected lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. For the first time in forever, the rest of the Big Ten has a lot more unknowns than the Fighting Illini.

For the second straight season, the Illini will add a top-50 recruit to the roster as Kofi Cockburn will play significant minutes in the frontcourt. Underwood has been able to parlay the positive buzz around the program into some success on the recruiting trail. Coleman Hawkins is already in the fold for the 2020 class and the Illini are in great position with two top-100 guards, Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller.

Things are looking up headed into year three for Brad Underwood. There have been a few jolts of electricity zapped through the comatose Illinois Basketball program. A court storming victory. A projected first-round NBA draft pick. Some positive recruiting buzz. An Andy-Katz-led preseason hype train. These are all great things. It’s great to be excited for the first time in years. But it’s so important to capitalize on these signs of life. Illinois has to take those sparks and prove something. It’s time to rise from the dead and show off some dance moves.

What Success Looks Like

I don’t want to be dramatic and say “Tourney or Bust”, but: Tourney or Bust.

This has the chance to be the best Illinois team in a decade. That’s not hyperbole. The roster talent across the board is at the highest level since the Weber years. If Underwood can’t do it with this team, he probably never will.

The Big Ten is likely to have a down year. Michigan State, Maryland and Ohio State are the only teams that really scare anyone in the conference. Purdue, Wisconsin and Indiana should be mentioned out of respect, but I expect all of those teams to take a step back. The opportunity is there for the taking. Illinois returns essentially all of its contributors from a year ago except for Aaron Jordan. Youth is no longer an excuse.

Win Braggin’ Rights. Win 10+ Big Ten games. Win 20+ games. And most importantly, finish in the top half of the Big Ten and reach the NCAA Tournament.

No more gray areas, it’s black and white this season. The Tournament is a requirement. If Underwood squanders Ayo Dosunmu’s two seasons in Champaign and doesn’t get a postseason appearance during his tenure, it will be an even greater tragedy than Malcolm Hill’s four seasons without a tournament appearance.

Three Big Questions

These questions revolve around the health and ceiling of the program in the short and long term. If they’re all answered in a positive light, Illini fans will be pretty happy at the end of the season.

1. Can somebody please step up and grab starters minutes on the wing?

Unfortunately, this question was copied and pasted directly from last year’s preview. This was the same question I led off with a year ago. I was imploring Da’Monte Williams and Tevian Jones to step up and take some of Aaron Jordan’s minutes on the wing. They never did. Da’Monte was the same limited offensive player we saw during his freshman year and Tevian Jones was more-or-less a deer in the headlights on roller skates on defense.

However, it seems I was looking in the wrong place last year. With Tevian Jones suspended indefinitely and Da’Monte Williams unlikely to become the dynamic offensive off-guard I hoped he could be, I’ll turn to Alan Griffin. The offseason hype train for Griffin has been picking up steam fast. A few nice practice reports and a strong showing in Italy have had fans penciling him into the starting rotation already.

But how good can Alan Griffin really be?

Can he start and play 25+ minutes per game on the wing? Can he score 8-10 points per game? Can he help out a still undersized frontcourt and grab 4-5 rebounds a game? Can he do all of this while locking up the other teams most versatile offensive player? Can he shoot 40 percent from three?

That’s a lot to ask of someone who played seven minutes per game last year. I’m not saying he has to do all of those things. But if he can do three or four of them, it greatly raises Illinois’ ceiling. Last year, the Illini suffered greatly because they were getting empty minutes night after night on the wings. Aaron Jordan, Da’Monte Williams, Kipper Nichols, Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin were a huge net negative at the 2-4 last year. That group loses Jordan and Jones — at least temporarily — and adds a freshman Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. And it must improve. Which means Williams, Griffin and Nichols have to improve. Williams and Nichols are already upperclassmen. The best candidate to take a leap is Alan Griffin.

2. Is this defense actually going to work?

Because so far it hasn’t.

Underwood’s staple has been relentless pressure both on and off the ball. Create turnovers and turn your defense into easy points. It’s fun and exciting when it works like it did against Michigan State. The problem is it usually doesn’t work.

I’m going to list some basic statistics and where the Illini ranked in them last season. Keep in mind there are 347 Division I Men’s Basketball teams.

  • 46.3% Opp. FG% (311)
  • 53.6% Opp. 2PFG% (321)
  • 23.5 Opp. Free Throw Attempts per Game (334)
  • 22.4 Defensive Rebounds per Game (317)
  • 2.6 Blocks per Game (262)
  • 21.2 Fouls per Game (339)
  • 75.2 Opp PPG (269)

That’s really bad. You’re not going to win a lot of games with numbers like that. And you’re definitely not going to an NCAA Tournament with numbers like that. Now, I left out the fact that they were one of the best defenses in the country at forcing turnovers. And while that’s good and important, at some point there’s a law of diminishing returns. And that’s what we saw last season.

It will be incredibly interesting to see how Brad Underwood approaches his style of defense this season. I assume he will stick with the intense pressure to start the year. It’s his basketball program and in a perfect world that’s how he wants his program to play. But this is a make-or-break season. He can’t just let the losses pile up like he did the last two seasons. What will have to happen and how bad will it have to get for Brad Underwood to ditch his signature defense for the pack line like he did at Oklahoma State?

3. What is Kofi Cockburn’s ceiling as a freshman?

This ties in with question No. 2. Kofi Cockburn is a large human. I don’t think pressuring screeners and denying passing lanes 20 feet from the basket is going to play to his strengths.

Cockburn is going to have to adjust from the way he played in high school. Not only is he going to have adjust to not being laughably larger than everyone he goes up against, but he is going to have to adjust to Underwood’s run-n-gun style of play. But Underwood is also going to have to adjust to Cockburn. He’s a unique player and unlike anyone he’s ever coached before. How long will it take for these two clashing basketball styles to meet in the middle?

Between freshman foul trouble, getting his conditioning up to speed, adjusting to Underwood’s style and adjusting to the speed of the game, there are a lot of things for the young big man to worry about. So it would be a little unfair to expect him to walk in and play productive starters minutes from the jump. But the problem is that’s exactly what the Illini need him to do.

Cockburn will come off the bench to start the year as Underwood will likely try to stagger his minutes with Bezhanishvili, especially in the early going. He’s going to be expected to be the anchor on defense and cover up all the mistakes and over-pursuits of the ball pressure defense and clean up on the defensive glass, which is an area Illinois struggled in a season ago.

The shorter his adjustment period to the college game takes will be directly correlated to the amount of wins this Illini team can accumulate.

Another note on the topic of Cockburn is how he plays with Giorgi. If Giorgi can step out and hit a few more jump shots this season, it may allow Underwood to go super big and play Kofi and Giorgi in spurts together. Having that wrinkle would provide the coaching staff with another card up its sleeve when Big Ten play rolls around.

Season Predictions

I’m going to copy and paste from last season’s preview again real quick:

Every year I go through the same cycle. The season ends in disappointing fashion and I tell myself to not get my hopes up for next year and that we are still a long way away. Then it’s three weeks until the first game, and I’m drowning in practice reports and asking myself “Is Michigan really a guaranteed loss?”. Then I try to ground myself and come to a reasonable conclusion. Not too high, not too low.

It’s been a lot harder for me to not get too high the last few months. The team is only losing one major contributor in Aaron Jordan. Ayo Dosunmu is back. The Big Ten is down. The ingredients are there.

I’m riding high from the back-to-back football wins. And I really believe this basketball team is going to bring us back to relevance this time.

Record: 23-8 (13-7 in the B1G), 5th in the B1G Conference

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Round of 32

All B1G:

Ayo Dosunmu — First Team

Trent Frazier — Third Team

Giorgi Bezhanishvili — Honorable Mention

Illinois can realistically go undefeated in the non-conference. Arizona, Miami and Missouri (and maybe Grand Canyon?) are the real tests. I have the Illini dropping the early season contest to Arizona. It’s tough to go on the road in college basketball, especially all the way to the west coast. The name of the game in the Big Ten is protect home court. Win eight at home and beat the bad conference teams on the road.

If I’m being honest with myself, that win total is probably on the high end. But this is the first time we’ve had legitimate hope as a fanbase since the Weber years. I’m choosing to bottle up and cherish this feeling.

We’ll learn a lot very soon. The Arizona game is in less than two weeks and I cannot wait.

Illinois Basketball is back.