If you look up the history and etymology for the word “sophomore”, this is what you’ll find:
perhaps from Greek sophos wise + moros foolish
That feels so appropriate. Thinking you’ve got the game of high school, college or life in general figured out just to be slapped in the face by it. Now, I’m not saying the sophomores listed below are fools, or over their skis, but it feels like a nice definition for Illinois Basketball. We have the history and the learned experience to be cautious and wise, but every fall comes around and we start whispering “Sweet Sixteen” or “top-four Big Ten finish”. And those rumblings are more sincere than ever this year, and most of that sincerity is thanks to this group of sophomores.
It would be irresponsible to start with anyone else.
This is now Ayo Dosunmu’s team and program. The guard out of Chicago will likely finish his career as one of the best Illini of the decade, and perhaps the most talented Illini since 2005.
Ayo clearly became a team leader and go-to player during Big Ten season and was not afraid to take and make big clutch shots late in close games. Dosunmu is this team’s leader and closer. When the game matters the ball has to be in his hands, and he’s smart enough to make the best play for the team.
Ayo quelled the nerves around his jumpshot after shooting 35% from three on over four attempts per game. He came to Champaign with an elite knack of getting to the basket. Underwood mentioned that he has put on 20 pounds for the upcoming season. Ayo has the long frame of an NBA player and was surely told to improve his strength from NBA scouts. With a year under his belt and some hype surrounding him, hopefully the refs finally call some fouls on Dosunmu and he can get to the line a bit more. For as strong of a penetrator as he is, he should be getting to the line much more than three times per game. If that number shoots up to six or seven attempts per game, Dosunmu’s scoring average is going to close in on 20 PPG.
Dosunmu will also lead the team in assists and be the best perimeter defender. His size and quickness gives him great versatility on the defensive end.
I could ramble on and on, but if you watched any Illinois basketball at all you know how good Ayo was last year and how good he is going to be this year. He has been selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten First Team, and I will be genuinely surprised if he doesn’t receive that honor in March. Depending on where the Illini finish in the standings, Dosunmu will have a real chance at Player of the Year honors as well.
The Big Georgian was our diamond in the rough last year.
As a freshman, Giorgi was the teams third-leading scorer, leading rebounder and leading shot blocker. Absolutely nobody saw that coming. He will have some help down low this season with addition of Kofi Cockburn, but Bezhanisvili will still be the go-to big man for the Illini, especially on offense.
The key to a successful season for Giorgi is to cut down on the mistakes. Mainly, cut down on his fouls. He spoke at Big Ten Media Day about how Illini fans will see a more mature version of him this season. Ideally, Illinois will get 30 minutes per game out of Bezhanishvili. In order for that to happen he can’t lead the conference in fouls again. In 33 games played, he fouled out 10 times and had 4 or more fouls in 21 games. Those numbers have to come way down to about three and 13, respectively.
Giorgi showed off the best low-post offensive game Illini fans have seen all decade. Expect to see Underwood run his offense through the talented scorer and passer even more from 15 feet and in. There’s not much he can improve on that front.
The one thing to look out for with Giorgi this season is his shot. Is that something he can add to his game this season? He took a few last season, but it didn’t go well for him. He finished the year shooting 5-for-30, which was good for 16%. Can that become 28-32% on a similar amount of attempts? If it can, that will change how coaches have to scheme Illinois with him on the floor.
Griffin was the star of the offseason.
After a quiet freshman season, Griffin impressed at open scrimmages at Ubben and on the team’s Italy Trip. Griffin came to Champaign with the label as a sharpshooter and he showed off that range in Italy with a 30-point performance.
Griffin’s aggressiveness and ability to get the little things done impressed during summer workouts. Crashing the offensible boards, playing smart defense, running the floor and impacting the game with energy.
One of the reasons for Illinois’ struggles last season was wing play. The Illini could not find a consistent contributor to play the three. I was — and still am — holding out hope for Da’Monte Williams, but he did not take the sophomore leap like many had hoped. Now, Underwood will turn to Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones to make that leap. He needs at least one of them to take that role in order to have a go-to five-man lineup when things get tight. That guy needs to be a versatile and smart defender who can go head to head with the other sides versatile wing scorers. That’s one of the reasons why Iowa beat us to a pulp last year — they have a long list of 6-foot-6 forwards who can score, and we had no one to match up with them.
As of today, I would guess that Alan Griffin will be the starting small forward when the Illini tip the season off. There’s still a chance Underwood values Williams’ defense, but when push comes to shove I think Griffin will crack the starting rotation.
I raved about Tevian Jones when he was coming in as a freshman. We saw flashes last season, and this year we need to see consistency.
Tevian Jones’ spotlight performance came against Maryland at Madison Square Garden. He came in and shot 4-of-9 from three and had an electrifying dunk to knock off the Terps. He’s a perfect compliment to Ayo offensively — an incredibly long and bouncy forward who can splash threes at an efficient rate and run the floor with Ayo and throw down nasty dunks.
He should see increased and steady playing time by firmly moving into Underwood’s rotation. Hopefully that provides Jones confidence and can bring about consistent results. While he can turn into a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, he first will have to become a defender. That was Jones’ most glaring week spot last season. If anyone with a strong handle got Jones isolated they could blow by him with ease. Jones was experiencing the classic “speed of the game” problem at times.
Hopefully an offseason of reps will help to slow things down for the talented sophomore from California. If he can approach his high ceiling this year, then the Illini might just have enough firepower to reach and surpass some lofty preseason expectations.