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TCR Staff Predictions: Illinois Basketball’s 2021-22 Season

How do we think the Illini will play this season?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Tristen Kissack: Illinois 25-6 (15-5 Big Ten), Lose in Big Ten Championship, Lose in Final Four

Man, it’s nice to have expectations. Without spending too much time talking about last season, Brad Underwood has stated how the exit in the Round of 32 left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. That alone should be enough to fuel this team to at the very least a 3-seed in this year’s tournament. This year’s roster is arguably deeper than last with the additions of Alfonso Plummer, Omar Payne, Austin Hutcherson and Luke Goode, who I expect to contribute the most of the freshmen. It should also be a much better shooting team from deep too. Pair that with a potential National Player of the Year at center and First-Team All-American wizard with the ball at the point, that’s the making of another fun season.

Stephen Cohn: Illinois 23-8 (15-5 Big Ten), Lose in Big Ten Championship, Lose in Elite Eight

Well, obviously last year didn’t end the way any Illini fan would have hoped for, so this year, in a very weird way, can only get better. While Illinois probably won’t enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed again, a favorable non-conference slate and the size and shooting to compete in the Big Ten should keep Brad Underwood’s team ranked all year long. If Kofi Cockburn plays like the National Player of the Year candidate he’s being made out to be, and Andre Curbelo can take care of the ball, this Illinois team won’t slip up in the Round of 32 to Loyola and has the chance to make a deep run into March.

Drew Pastorek: Illinois 22-9 (13-7 Big Ten), Big Ten Tournament Champions, Lose in Sweet Sixteen

Illinois is arguably more talented than last year’s squad — despite the losses of Ayo, Giorgi, and Adam Miller. The 2021-22 roster also has the most depth of any of Brad Underwood’s previous teams. The early games should give BU a chance to really sort out his rotations and substitution patterns. Kofi’s suspension shouldn’t impact the team that negatively — maybe Marquette sneaks away with a win, but it’s not likely — and I think it will allow opportunities for other players to snag some early-season minutes and develop trust & confidence.

The Fighting Illini doing any worse than 9-2 in non-con play would be an eyebrow-raiser. I’m forecasting a loss to Arkansas in the final of the Hall of Fame Classic, as well as a defeat to either Arizona or Mizzou (ugh, I just upchucked a little writing that). I don’t believe the Illini are quite at the one-seed level this year, and I’m totally okay with that as long as they get off to a quick start, finish the year strong, and at least get to the second weekend of the Big Dance. As we saw last season, winning is really f***ing hard, and winning when you’re expected to win is even harder. Illinois is predicted to finish top three in the B1G, which is totally fair and absolutely attainable. And while expectations for the Illini should remain high, I’m trying to take a cautious viewpoint — I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than be devastated in March.

Quentin Wetzel: Illinois 23-8 (14-6), Big Ten Tournament Runners Up, Final Four

Illinois is ranked 11th in the country. It was picked 3rd in the Big Ten. Expectations in Champaign are the highest they’ve been since… last year. That’s crazy. I mean, can we just take a moment to acknowledge how cool that is? Brad Underwood brought Illinois basketball all the way back to being championship contenders and then kept it there. Please clap for Brad Underwood.

Anyway, I think this team’s ceiling is at least as high as it was last year. Kofi was better as a sophomore than Ayo was as a sophomore, and it’s quite possible he’ll be better as a junior too. And if everything goes right, Andre Curbelo could be an All-American this year. Replace Adam Miller with Alfonso Plummer, Giorgi with Omar Payne — both of which I think are upgrades (sorry Giorgi) — and Curbelo’s backup guard minutes with Austin Hutcherson, and the team could look pretty similar to a year ago. But add in Coleman Hawkins’ development and you have a real ceiling-raiser.

That’s just the ceiling though, and there’s no guarantee Illinois will hit it. Kofi could continue to be unable to pass out of a double team, Andre Curbelo might still turn the ball over at the highest rate in the Big Ten, Da’Monte Williams’ shooting could (and probably will) regress. Or maybe Austin Hutcherson won’t be able to stay healthy and Omar Payne struggles to backup Kofi. There are a number of things that could keep this team from reaching its full potential.

The most likely outcome, I think, is that Illinois ends up being around a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament and 2nd in the Big Ten (I’d give Purdue the slight edge). And that’s a great place to be. But if everything clicks like it did last year… watch out, college basketball.

Jeff Horwitz: Illinois 23-8 (14-6) Big Ten Tournament Runners Up, Sweet Sixteen

This is the most talented frontcourt I’ve seen in 20 years of watching Illinois basketball, and it might be their best frontcourt of all time. The talent is belied by the inability to play Kofi Cockburn and Omar Payne at the same time. However, I could see Brad Underwood occasionally using a more pro-style lineup with Austin Hutcherson and Coleman Hawkins at the stretch four. Add Da’Monte Williams’ outsized defensive ability, and it’ll be extremely difficult for opposing teams to get points in the paint.

The loss of Ayo Dosunmu looms large. The loss of Adam Miller hurts too, but it’s neutralized by the backcourt’s continued development, as well as the addition of a healthy Hutcherson. The Illini will be able to come out more aggressive this year with Andre Curbelo taking over the point from Trent Frazier. It’ll also allow Trent to flourish as a shooter, and he’s as good of a backup point guard as I can recall. Illinois was 15-2 with Jacob Grandison in the starting lineup last year, and he still might have to battle it out with Hutcherson. This team is stacked, and it’s going to be another great year. A Final Four would be amazing, but if Illinois wins a Big Ten championship and makes it to the second weekend of the tournament, I’ll be happy.

Matt Rejc: Illinois 20-11 (12-8), Big Ten Tournament Semi-Finalist, Elite Eight

Few college basketball seasons are smooth from start to finish, and I believe this one will be no exception. I foresee some real growing pains in the non-conference and early conference slate as this new team starts to gel against quality opponents. Obviously the biggest change this season will be the absence of Ayo Dosunmu, who bailed the Illini out in many games last season. Someone else will need to fill that void if the Illini want to reclaim the degree of dominance that they exerted especially late in games last year. I think someone will, and it’ll probably be Andre Curbelo, but it’ll take time.

Making the tournament shouldn’t be in doubt, but I do expect the Illini to fall out of the rankings at some point this season. That said, I think they’ll ultimately end up around where they are now in the polls. Once this team gets going though, I do expect them to make some real noise in the NCAA Tournament from an 7-5 seed spot.