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Next Year’s Roster is Rounding Into Form

Underwood has retooled the Illini’s lineup this offseason.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the extended dead period banning in-person recruiting due to the pandemic, the Illini have been busy with a flurry of moves to cement their roster for next season. And despite Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu entering the NBA Draft and Adam Miller in the transfer portal, the Illini’s recent commitments and signings should give the Illini faithful a great deal to be excited about when the team hits the court again in the late fall.

Let’s dig into the recent news and discuss how it should impact the Illini on the court next season.

Recent Roster Moves

Four-star recruits Brandin Podziemski and RJ Melendez recently signed their national letters of intent with Illinois, while Florida transfer Omar Payne has a financial tender agreement signed with the Illini. Head coach Brad Underwood clearly prioritized versatility on the wing and reinforcing the interior after the departure of Bezhanishvili. He accomplished both in spades with these recent signings.

The 6-foot-7 Melendez brings ideal length and scoring at multiple levels, having averaged 24.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists this past season and comes in as a top-100 recruit according to 247Sports.

Podziemski comes in as the reigning Mr. Basketball from Wisconsin and finished with similarly impressive statistics in his senior season, 35.1 points, 10 rebounds, and 5.6 assists while shooting 60.4% from the field and 43.4% on 3-pointers. He also finished as the only player in state history to score more than 2,000 career points in just 3 seasons. He gives Underwood additional scoring power and versatility defensively on the wing that needed a boost with the losses of Miller and Dosunmu.

Florida transfer big man Omar Payne brings great offensive and defensive potential to the Illini. Standing at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, his length is sure to create disruption on the interior for opposing offenses. As a Gator, he finished second on the team in blocks last season with 29 and averaged 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in 24 games played. The development of Cockburn over the last two seasons likely played big role in this commitment, as he was ranked one spot ahead of Cockburn as the No. 11 center in the class of 2019. Whether Cockburn ultimately stays or goes, Payne brings athletic upside that could make him a valuable starter in the middle or a better defensive replacement when Cockburn sits.

Most recently, the Illini received news that Trent Frazier will be returning for a fifth and final college basketball season for the Illini, after having previously declared for the NBA Draft, and got a commitment from Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer.

The return of Frazier is welcome news for Illini fans who value his loyalty in helping build up the program as well as his gritty defense and clutch shot making that he showcased this past season. The Big-Ten Honorable Mention and All-Defensive Team performer finished last season with 10.2 points and 2.7 assists per contest while shooting 36.2% from three.

With the commitment of Plummer, the Puerto Rican connection continues to pay dividends for the Illini. Active recruitment from Curbelo played a major role in this commitment, where Plummer appreciated the cultural connection and on-court compatibility that the two share. The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 13.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.0 assist last season at Utah, while proving to be a potent three point shooter with 64 3-point baskets at a 38% clip. His veteran experience and scoring success coming from a major conference give the Illini a proven scoring option, whether he becomes a starter or plays a major role off the bench.

What it Means for Next Season

Coach Underwood bolstered the roster with more perimeter shooting and defensive versatility in this class. While the Illini may run a smaller backcourt at times with Frazier, Curbelo, and Plummer all being 6-foot-2 or shorter, the longer wings they signed in top-100 players Luke Goode and RJ Melendez as well as 4-star Brandin Podziemski should help to minimize concerns on the defensive end. While he has less offensive polish at this point, transfer Omar Payne brings greater rebounding potential and shot blocking ability than Bezhanishvili did, which should bolster the Illini’s defensive unit that was top-50 in defensive efficiency last season. Surrounding Curbelo with shooters around the perimeter and another ideal pick and roll partner to send lobs to should enable Illinois to maximize his talents as a passer and driver, creating the pace and space style that Underwood likes to play.

It remains to be seen whether lightly used reserves like Brandon Lieb, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, and Jermaine Hamlin will yet enter the transfer portal seeking playing time elsewhere, as well as what key contributor Da’Monte Williams will do regarding his future.

Due to the lack of experience in the frontcourt with Bezhanishvili leaving and Cockburn entering the NBA Draft (with the option to return), look for Illinois to stay involved with its frontcourt targets to get some experienced depth at those positions.