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Expectations, uncertainty high for Illinois as practice begins

The Illini officially tip-off the season on Nov. 25.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illini officially began practice on Wednesday, nearly seven months after their promising season was cut short in March.

There are still numerous unknowns regarding the entire NCAA season, but with the same global pandemic that ended last season still circulating, just being back on the floor is not something to take for granted.

“Guys are bouncing off the walls,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “Feels good to be back doing what we all love to do.”

But one of the most glaring kinks in the return to play — and allowing teams to play nonconference games — is the fact that the Illini do not yet have a finalized schedule.

“We don’t have a schedule yet. That’s no secret,” Underwood said. “We have had some games that we’ve reshuffled.

But practicing and preparing without opponents set in place...

“It’s maddening,” Underwood said.

One thing is certain for Underwood, and that is when the season will begin.

“Without a doubt, the season will start on Nov. 25,” he said.

According to reports, the Illini are set to host Wright State, Ohio and North Carolina A&T in a multi-team tournament that weekend. Aside from that, not much is set in stone in terms of opponents.

One guarantee of this season for the Illini will be the expectations. This team finished just inside the top-25 a year ago, returns its head coach, a legitimate lottery pick — and a Wooden Award favorite — in Ayo Dosunmu, reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn and adds Illinois Mr. Basketball Adam Miller among others.

Some expected the Illini to travel deep into both the Big Ten conference tournament and the NCAA tournament, which was expected to be the Illini’s first tournament berth since 2013.

For the Illini, it’s about returning to that level of play. Maintaining it will be the goal for this season.

“We had everything you want heading into a postseason run,” Underwood said. “Now, one of the challenges is getting back to that level.”

The fourth year head coach is not in a hurry to name a starting lineup either, especially since the opponents are still a question mark.

“Ayo’s gonna start. I have a really good feeling about Ayo,” Underwood said. “Beyond that, we’ll leave it at that.”

Speaking of Dosunmu, who returned to school and opted out of the NBA Draft in late July, Underwood announced the junior is up to 206 pounds, almost 40 pounds heavier — and stronger — than he was when he came in as a freshman.

A big season from Dosunmu, a bounce back season from Giorgi Bezhanishvili, large contributions from a freshman class that Underwood declared is “ahead of any group (of freshmen) we’ve had,” and more is needed for the Illini to get where they are expected to go.

With six weeks until the season begins, expectations through the roof and a schedule still up in the air, Underwood kept it brief.

“We’ve got to be prepared.”