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Ranking the 5 most important Illini heading into the season

Forget about football, basketball is a month away.

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

If you’ve read some of my columns before, you might know that I’m a Bears and Cubs fan. Both teams have been awful lately, while their rivals continue to make them look like trash. Even my European soccer team (AS Roma) lost to its rival. Boo, Lazio!

Anyway, I’m not in a great place when it comes to my sports teams, but as of Thursday, it’s only 40 days until the Illini men’s basketball team opens against Jackson State.

According to multiple sports books, the Fighting Illini currently sit at +1600 to win the 2021-22 National Championship, behind only Gonzaga, Michigan, UCLA, and Duke. Bart Torvik’s model has the Illini ranked fifth, ahead of Purdue (seventh) and Michigan (eighth).

Clearly the experts think that the Illini are going to be really damn good this year. So instead of drowning in football misery, let’s drink in the basketball excellence.

Below is a power ranking of the top five Illini heading into the season.

5) Alfonso Plummer

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Last year with the game on the line, you knew the ball was going to Ayo Dosunmu. Ayo was truly one of a kind, but grad transfer Alfonso Plummer from Utah should help make up some of the clutch shooting that he provided.

Plummer scored 13.6 PPG last year and has a career 3P/eFG/FT slash line of .399/.578/.796. He also broke the Pac-12 record for most made three pointers in a game with 11. His veteran leadership will be incredibly important going forward.

Honorable mention goes to transfer Omar Payne, who will be instrumental in keeping Kofi Cockburn fresh and out of foul trouble

4) Da’Monte Williams

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after Trent Frazier announced he was returning to Champaign for this season, Da’Monte Williams followed suit. Da’Monte doesn’t shoot the ball a ton, but when he does, good things happen.

Last year, he had a slash line of .547/.688/.681. An eFG of .688! According to Sports Reference, he was first on the team in points produced per 100 possessions, third in points allowed per 100 possessions, and fourth in win shares per 40 minutes. DMW is only 6-foot-3, but he’s 215 pounds and has a wingspan of nearly 7 feet.

3) Trent Frazier

Trent’s seen it all. When the Illini were bad, Trent was the go-to guy. When Ayo replaced him as the alpha, Trent willingly played his part, and he’s been fantastic.

His slash line last year was .362/.512/.831. Not only is Trent a great shooter, he’s also a plus ball handler and a lockdown on-ball defender. He led all scorers with 22 points in the 76-53 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor, which launched Illinois to the No. 2 ranking in the AP Top 25.

Because he’s a super senior, he’s going to break A LOT of Illinois records this year.

2) Andre Curbelo

El Mago.

Curbelo won Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman, and as a senior (if he’s still around) he’s likely to make the All Big-Ten First Team. During the three games that Ayo missed after Mady Sissoko broke his nose, Andre averaged 14.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

That three-game stretch showed that he is ready to lead this offense. And he makes plays like these:

And this:

And, with the next player, he made this:

1) Kofi Cockburn

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

King Kofi. No surprise here.

Kofi Cockburn is a favorite for National POY, and in my opinion the only player that has a clear leg up on him is Drew Timme from Gonzaga.

Last year Cockburn averaged 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. He was first on the team in rebounds, defensive rating, win shares, and PER. Some knocks on him were his poor FT and mid-range shooting as well as his lack of passing. All of these are fixable with good coaching.

And that’s why he came back — to work on his game so he can be the best NBA prospect possible, make some money off new NIL rules, and win a title.