Stephen Cohn: 30-5, 1st in Big Ten, Final Four
I probably won’t be writing for TCR for the rest of my life, so I might as well go big during one of the times I actually can. Illinois very well could win a national championship this season, but I’d like to at least have something to reach for, so I’ll stop by prediction at the Final Four. I got a lot of hate for saying Ayo is the greatest college basketball player I (read: ME) have ever seen, especially in person, and I think he has a chance to really live up to that hype this season. Blow me away and let’s run the table here.
Tristen Kissack: 30-5, 1st in Big Ten, Final Four
The Illini should roll through their nonconference schedule, splitting the Duke/Baylor games and racing through the start of Big Ten play. The first half of Illinois’ Big Ten slate doesn’t feature a team ranked higher than No. 23. Of the six other Big Ten teams in the top 25, the Illini only have to play two twice. Not having to play Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan or Rutgers is HUGE for their regular season conference title hopes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Illinois start 16-1 heading into the toughest part of its schedule: at No. 13 Michigan State, vs. No. 5 Iowa, at Indiana (who will be solid with Trayce Jackson-Davis), vs. No. 7 Wisconsin and then at No. 25 Michigan. That five game stretch should give us a better picture of Illinois’ national title odds. Knockout Iowa in the Big Ten title game, earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advance to the first Final Four since 2005.
Matt Rejc: 28-7, 2nd in Big Ten, Sweet Sixteen
Without question, this is poised to be the best Illinois basketball team since 2004-2005. Expectations are understandably through the roof among Illini fans, but as talented as this team is, I’m just not ready to believe that this will be the year that Illinois returns to the Four Four. Notably, the wing position is something of a question mark. Yes, Austin Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison were both brought in to fill that gap, but we don’t know how they’ll perform in the Big Ten.
The absence of a proven wing doesn’t have the potential to be a fatal flaw for the Illini. Even if neither of the transfers are up to the task, Underwood could insert Miller and/or Curbelo and play a three- or even four-guard offense with Cockburn or Giorgi in the paint. But title contending teams have proven options (and depth) at every position, and playing without a real wing seemed to be more of a situational package for the Illini in the past. All that said, Illinois will have a great season this year, but I think the best is yet to come.
Michael Berns: 30-5, 1st in Big Ten, Elite 8
This is the team we’ve been dreaming about. There’s almost a romantic quality about this roster, and it’s hard not to gush with excitement. Size (Kofi). Outside shooting (Miller). Ball handling (Frazier, Curbelo). Clutch combo guard with the ball (Ayo). Defensive dominance (Frazier, Williams, Kofi). This team is so stacked, and the fact that most of them have played together for at least a year under a returning coaching staff is a recipe for success, especially in March.
The national hype is real, and it all starts at the defensive end. Remember last year’s wins at Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Penn State? This team is better and deeper. 2020’s been a tough year for everyone. Illini basketball is our salvation. ILL!
Drew Pastorek: 27-7, 2nd in Big Ten, Elite 8
It’s not fair to EXPECT a National title, but it’s completely fair to expect a deep NCAA run for the Fighting Illini. Anything less would be a tremendous disappointment. With marquee matchups against Baylor & Duke on the non-conference docket and a favorable Big Ten schedule, the Illini ought to be well-prepared for March and should end up with a terrific seed in the Big Dance. Brad Underwood and his staff have seemingly built the roster perfectly for this moment. I think the heartache of last season will harden and motivate this team. Guard play typically wins games in March and the Illini have tons of playmaking potential at those positions. As long as Illinois can shoot the ball better, they should be fine. But there are plenty of damn good teams that have faltered in the NCAA tournament, and this team hasn’t felt that kind of pressure. Get to the second weekend and anything else is a bonus.
Raul Rodriguez: 29-6, 2nd in Big Ten, Final Four
No one should expect a Final Four appearance especially since the Illini have neither made the Tournament since 2013 nor have they made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since the magical season of 2005. But the Illini have all the key pieces back from a team that, absent a global pandemic, would have entered the 2020 NCAA tournament somewhere between a three to a five seed. So, the expected progression, of returning so much experience from a good team, is that the Illini could be somewhere from a 1 seed to a 4 seed. In other words, the Illini are well equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of where they are seeded, the Illini will be a dangerous team come March. So, don’t expect a Final Four run but be ready for one.
Jeff Horwitz: 23-10, 2nd in the Big Ten, Sweet Sixteen
This is a very good Illini team, but can they be more than the sum of their parts? They lost two huge role players this offseason in Andres Feliz as well as Alan Griffin, who was the best shooter on the team. Even with Griffin, Illinois only shot 30.9% from three, which was the worst in the Big Ten. Jacob Grandison should replace some of Griffin’s production, but he hasn’t proven himself in a power conference. The loss of Feliz is even bigger for me because he was so reliable at the point last year. Trent Frazier will need to step up his game in all aspects to fill the void. While Andre Curbelo could fill in at point, he has no experience at this level. With the talent on this team, they should be able to run into 20+ wins and a double bye in the Big Ten tournament. But, can they be more than the sum of their parts?
Quentin Wetzel: 28-7, 1st in the Big Ten, Final Four
Four returning starters. Two top 50 freshmen. Two preseason All-Big Ten studs. A preseason first team All-American. This team is STACKED. Expectations are through the roof for the Illini, and rightly so. I do think we should pump the brakes on the hype juuuust a little though. Four of the nine players expected to be in the rotation still have yet to play a game in the Big Ten. Even for talented players, making the jump from high school and low level college ball to the Big Ten is tough. But even if the newcomers do live up to expectations, great teams still lose games, and Illinois’ schedule is brutal. Illinois has 10 games against top 25 opponents including 5 against teams in the top 10. The Illini probably won’t run away with the Big Ten like in 2005. But if everything clicks, they could, and that’s what’s so exciting. Illini fans have been waiting for a season like this for more than a decade, and it’s finally here. Let’s enjoy it.
Billy Lawton: 25-8, 3rd in the Big Ten, Sweet Sixteen
This season should be a welcome sight for Illini fans who have been waiting for the team to return to their historical relevance on the hardwood. The many returning contributors for the Illini, in addition to the exciting newcomers, should ensure that we have continued success in conference play this season. However, I’m pumping the brakes on the Big Ten title talk due to the fact that Wisconsin and Iowa both return most of their main contributors from a year ago and will be right at the top all throughout the season. Additionally, in both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, shooting and guard play is critical. While we have steady veteran leadership in Dosunmu and Frazier, it remains to be seen whether the Illini will improve upon their poor three point shooting from a year ago, where they finished last in the Big Ten and 297th nationally by percentage. While Adam Miller should help with that, it’s too much to expect for him to totally turn around those dismal team numbers. Additionally, freshmen tend to go through cold streaks while adjusting to the Big Ten, which could be detrimental when going up against top teams like Iowa and Wisconsin. The four spot is also still a question mark at this point, as it’s unclear what transfers Grandison and Hutcherson will provide and/or whether Giorgi will be more effective and reprise his role at the four alongside Kofi. It remains to be seen how all the pieces will come together, especially with a shortened non conference, but this team will no doubt be the most exciting Illini squad in years.