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What we’re most excited for this Illinois Basketball season

It should be a fun year!

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Cohn’s Most Excited For: A more balanced Trent and Ayo

I wasn’t too avid of a watcher of the 2004-05 Illinois team (I was 7 and lived in the Chicago suburbs with very few relatives who attended Illinois), so the best backcourt duo I have ever seen is Trent and Ayo. The pair had its fair share of bumps and bruises last year, but when they were both on, boy, they were both on. And that’s when this is fun.

Hopefully after a year of playing side by side and understanding their roles in Underwood’s system, this dynamic duo can average upwards of 30 points per game and just be a national force to be reckoned with. Plus, they both have pretty unique personalities. Hey, Sports Illustrated, they’re waiting for their cover story!

Michael Berns’ Most Excited For: Kofi Cockburn and his Thiccness

We finally have a rim protector under Brad Underwood! The first one Illinois has truly had since Nnanna Egwu graduated. My expectations for Kofi are tapered: I don’t expect him to play more than 20 minutes a game. I don’t expect him to dominate each and every game he plays in. I don’t expect him to not get in foul trouble often. I do expect him to have plenty of games where he’s a non-factor and does not score, BUT…

Despite the talent at guard Illinois has had — last year’s 3-headed guard monster of Ayo, Trent and Feliz are all back — Illinois was still at a considerable disadvantage down low against the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Maryland, Wisconsin, etc. The Illini were a great rebounding team, but defensively lacked a big guy in the middle to protect against the ball pressure Illinois employs under Brad Underwood’s press-your-neck system. Giorgi is not small, but on the offensive side, Kofi being there allows Giorgi to operate at the top corner of the key where he can do the most damage posting up or playing straight up face to the basket. Welcome to Champaign, Mr. Thiccburn!

Tristen Kissack’s Most Excited For: Dancing

This is by far the most tournament ready team at Illinois in the past six years. Not making the dance would be, well it’d be a huge disappointment. We’ve heard all the talk about Ayo Dosunmu being a projected lottery pick in next year’s draft. This will likely be his last year as an Illini. Return almost the entire roster, add in a couple intriguing freshmen products (Kofi Cockburn, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk), and I feel like there’s something brewing here. I see 20+ wins on the calendar this season, more than enough to get the Illini back into the tournament. I’m excited to see what this team does for the fanbase and for the program. With all the momentum on the recruiting trail, it’s nice to see Illinois relevant nationally again. Now, go execute.

Kyle Huisinga’s Most Excited For: Alan Griffin’s Breakout

One of the biggest issues last year was the lack of a lengthy defender to disrupt opposing wings from scoring at will. From Jordan Murphy of Minnesota to Isaiah Roby of Nebraska, Illinois struggled to contain anyone with length at the 3 or 4. The Illini also got very little production offensively from their wings, either. Besides a few standout games from Tevian Jones (who was just suspended indefinitely). So, I’m here for the Alan Griffin hype. He’s the perfect player to address both issues. He has his own length at 6 foot 8 with an outside jump shot and jump out of the room, rim-rocking ability. He’s also tenacious and hard-working on the defensive end. If all the summer hype is for real, Griffin could be the breakout player for Illinois and could ameliorate the wing issues from the past several seasons. The Illini haven’t had a collection of such talented bigs in a while, and Griffin could be a perfect compliment to the strong guard play.

Mark Schaer’s Most Excited For: Giorgi continuing to improve his game

I think that it flew just a bit under the radar that Giorgi had some sort of hand injury during the majority of last season. And yet, he was third on the team in scoring, improved his rebounding and blocks as the season went on, and was a focal point for the media. The kid is fun and he just loves being a part of the Illini Men’s Basketball Team.

One aspect of Giorgi’s game that wasn’t so hot was his shooting from deep. He was… bad. Let’s just leave it there. Outside of seven or eight feet, he wasn’t real productive. I point to the Rutgers game (where Giorgi broke Deon Thomas’ freshman scoring record) as a case and point: he could not miss a shot (14-of-18 from the field, 35 points) and Rutgers knew exactly how he was going to score. His footwork and ball handling are in the upper-eshelon for someone of his size. If he can work the pick-and-pop with Trent and Ayo, this team will become a lot more dangerous. I am hoping he can be in the 33-37% range from deep, which would be a steep improvement. I don’t think this is totally out of the question, though. And it would really help open things up for Kofi, Trent, Ayo, and Alan.

Trey Layden’s Most Excited For: Underwood’s plans to use Kofi and Giorgi in rotations

Illinois Basketball has had some pretty suspect big men in recent memory to say the least. In the past two years, Coach Underwood found a gem out of nowhere in Giorgi and a highly-touted big man from prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Kofi Cockburn.

Last season we got bullied around the rim with opponents shooting 54 percent inside the arc. With a front line the likes of this year’s team I would expect that number to drop drastically. Kofi will not be able to play the minutes that Giorgi will be able to, but if they can manage to stay on the court for around 15 minutes a game together, that will improve our defense around the basket and rebounding. In recent memory, Michigan State is one team that comes to mind when thinking of massive frontcourts. The one thing they possessed that, I’m not sure the Illini will this year (a TBD) is a stretch four. If neither develops a reliable 15-foot jumper driving lanes will be clogged for Ayo, Andres, Trent, etc., and this duo won’t be on the court together very often.

Drew Pastorek’s Most Excited For: Ayo’s Emergence

Ayo Dosunmu has so far been the prized recruit for Brad Underwood. While we love the thought of Ayo as an NBA talent, it was quite apparent that he wasn’t ready to make that leap last season. His draft stock dropped even though his performance as a freshman was praiseworthy. Ayo has great instincts and is a two-way player, and willing to attack the basket, but needed to get stronger to be a better finisher at the NBA level. This is Ayo’s team, and he’s reportedly made marked improvements in the offseason. Despite the talent around him, the Illini’s success is contingent on Ayo’s development.

Matt O’Neall’s Most Excited For: How good this team could be

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.

For more on Matt’s predictions for this upcoming year, check out his full preview.