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TCR Staff Predictions: Illinois Basketball’s 2019-20 Season

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How do we think the season will play out?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Northwestern vs Illinois David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Cohn: 22-10, 4th in the Big Ten, Round of 64

Boy, I’d love to see this team go deep into the NCAA Tournament, but, just like football, until it’s proven to me, I struggle to believe it. I’ll believe in the hype, and I’ll believe in how good this can be, but we’ve heard that before. But, I do love this team. I get excited about watching Giorgi develop and Ayo flourish and Kipper do senior things and Trent shoot and all that. I like watching Brad get angry, and even as the team wins 20 games, he’ll get angry. So I’m excited. But whether the team goes far this year. Eh? Probably not.

Michael Berns: 23-8, 5th in the Big Ten, Sweet 16

I’m all in on this 2019-20 Illinois Fighting Illini hoops team. I was a freshman for the 2007-08 team (think of a young freshman Demetri McCamey), and in the 12 years including and since that season — this current group is the most talented and deepest roster we’ve had. I’m not 100% sold on Brad Underwood’s seven seconds or less system, I’m more like 85% sold. We’re a pain in the ass to play against, and this year our talent is right up there with the best in the conference. We were tough as nails to play against last year, and this year’s roster is more talented, more experienced, and physically bigger, stronger and longer than a year ago.

I think Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Maryland finish above us (in that order), but we’re definitely one of the top 5 teams in the Big Ten and good enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. Once there, guard play dominates the NCAA Tournament. Having a good lead guard is critical for success at The Dance. I put Ayo, Frazier and Feliz + our system up against any team in the country in the first couple of rounds when those opponents have little time to prepare.

Tristen Kissack: 23-8, 4th in Big Ten, Sweet 16

Man, this team’s ceiling is really high. There’s understandable concern coming off one of the worst seasons in school history, but Brad Underwood returns a lot of talent this year. Barring any major injuries, Illinois has the potential to be one of the best teams in the conference, and in my opinion, a top 20 team in the country. Underwood showed he’s willing to run Cockburn and Bezhanishvili on the floor together at the same time in last Friday night’s exhibition. That’s when this team will be at its most dangerous. I think this Illini squad drops a game in non-conference and finishes around the 13-7 mark in conference play. More than enough to get them back in the dance.

Kyle Huisinga: 21-10, 6th in Big Ten, Second Round

This might be hedging my bet a little, because I’m excited about this team. It’s the most talented team Illinois has had since Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, circa 2013. The guard play should be the best in the conference, and the collection of big men is exciting and full of potential. However, my biggest reason for pause is the defense. Has this defense really gotten markedly better. Even marginally? If so, this is an easy tournament team and maybe a top 4 or 5 seed in the Big Ten. If not, the ceiling won’t be as high, and the bubble will come a-callin’. I’m somewhere in the middle. Remember how bad we were last year. Do I think we go from the bottom to the tippy top in one year? Not quite. However, the future looks bright, and I definitely think this is a tournament team with the ability to make a deep run. The talent level is rising, and now it’s time to take the next step. An NCAA tournament berth is the expectation.

Mark Schaer: 21-10, 5th in the B1G, Second Round

I think we need to temper our expectations here. Yes, likely Northwestern will be bad. Nebraska isn’t looking promising, either. But the Big Ten is still arguably the best conference in basketball, and Michigan State and Maryland would like to remind you of how they’re projected to perform this year. Pat Chambers might be touting his best Nittany Lions team yet, and Chris Holtmann scored the coveted EJ Liddell prize who is sure to impress during his freshman campaign. Somewhere in there, the Illini will fall in the top half of the Big Ten. I think 5th (likely behind MSU, OSU, Purdue, and Michigan) is most likely. Kofi is going to provide some serious rim-stuffing that Illini fans haven’t seen in a long time. Ayo and Trent might be one of the best scoring duos in the country, and guys like Alan Griffin and Giorgi B. are going to be fan-favorites, I think. Non-conference play will be significantly less brutal than last year, with just #21 ranked Arizona looming as the only preseason top-25 team. If Ayo and Trent can find their rhythm together, Kofi can stay out of foul trouble, and Andres Feliz can be the glue that analysts think he is, there is a lot of potential for this team.

Trey Layden 22-9, 5th in Big Ten, Sweet 16

For me, the biggest question mark on this roster is the wing position. With the indefinite suspension of Tevian Jones this puts a lot of pressure on Alan Griffin especially. I think the wing position will be somewhere in the middle, but if Griffin has a breakout season, I believe Illinois could end up being the second best Big 10 team behind Michigan State. With all that being said, I have seen time and time again the ability of guard play to carry a team deep into the tournament. That is one thing the Illini do not lack this year whatsoever. With potential lottery pick Ayo Dosunmu, sharpshooting Trent Frazier, and the glue guy Andres Feliz, I easily think this team can make a run in the B1G tournament and another run in the NCAA tournament. Throw in the fact that we also have two legitimate big men, the excitement for this year’s Fighting Illini team is much higher than in recent years.

Drew Pastorek: 20-11, 6th in Big Ten, Second Round

Year three is supposed to be the year where everything starts to click, right? Brad Underwood has the personnel in place; now it’s time for it to come together. The Illini boasts tremendous depth in the backcourt with Ayo, Frazier & Feliz. Giorgi & Kofi Mack for a formidable frontcourt. Illinois has ample opportunities to win leading up to B1G play, and the conference seems to be pretty wide open. Illinois faces Northwestern and Rutgers twice, plays Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin only once and gets Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska at home. Win at least 7 of those 10 and the Illini should be in pretty good shape. Eyes are on Illinois this season. Get to the tournament and anything else will be a bonus.

Matt O’Neall: 28-8, 5th in Big Ten, Second Round

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.