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‘Always a fun time of year’: New-look Illini ready for season

Basketball is almost back.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 18 Div I Men’s Championship - First Round - Chattanooga v Illinois Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Following a Big Ten championship season, Illinois had yet another heartbreaking appearance in the NCAA Tournament with its loss to Houston.

With the departures of former veteran players like Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer, this team is going to have a brand new identity this season.

On Friday afternoon at the Ubben Complex, head coach Brad Underwood and his players addressed the media at their annual media day to discuss the upcoming season, which tips off later this month in an exhibition game against Quincy.

Young guns

Illinois added a handful of key veteran transfers in the offseason — but it also added a handful of new freshman who are going to be big difference makers.

Highlighted by the first-ever consensus 5-star recruit in program history in Skyy Clark, this new freshman class is going to be something special and coach Underwood knows that.

“Been really pleased with our freshman group,” Underwood said. “You can tell they’re winners.”

Clark isn't the only ‘winner’ Underwood is talking about, though. Some other fellow freshmen who will be joining Clark are Ty Rodgers, Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris.

“Those guys are really, really good,” Underwood said. “They’ve been great.”

One of them who's really showed out to Underwood is Epps.

“Last Saturday during our scrimmage, [Epps] was our leading scorer,” Underwood said.

Underwood isn't the only one noticing what these guys are doing; the veteran players are really enjoying what they’re seeing out of them.

“I think one of the best things that I’ve seen is that our freshman class is elite,” said senior forward Matthew Mayer. “Everyone single one of our freshmen are ready to step in.”

It’s all about helping the freshmen along the way, too.

“Just mentally I feel like I can help out our younger guys,” said senior guard Terrance Shannon. “If we’re winning, keep our foot on the gas.”

Clark and the other freshman value all the veterans’ knowledge they have for them.

“They’re like mentors to us,” Clark said. “They’re always telling us stuff and always looking out for us.”

And it’s helped them become better overall.

“We’ve evolved from day one to now,” Clark said. “Everyone’s got so much better and we’ve got stronger.”

Emphasis on defense

The Illini are not going to try to be — but are expecting themselves to be — the best defensive team in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

“I’ve been really pleased defensively,” Underwood said. “I think this team could be a very, very good defensive team.”

Underwood’s not just being blunt either. He knows this team and his players are carrying a defensive identity that is going to make opponents struggle.

“We’ve been a great defensive team,” said junior forward Coleman Hawkins. “Probably the best defensive team in the league for the past three years.”

That’s a big shoutout to the previous players in this program who have set a precedent that defense means a lot to the Illini.

But now, that precedent will continue with the addition of Mayer. Specifically since he has a big personal goal he wants to achieve.

“My biggest personal goal, and this is like what I’m really aiming for, is winning Big Ten defensive player of the year,” Mayer said. “I think I’ve been an underrated defender my whole career.”

Syndication: Burlington Times-News (bur) Sarah Phipps / The Oklahoman / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Illini have had guys make all-defensive teams in the Big Ten, but haven’t had a guy win the award since Dee Brown did so in the 2004-05 season.

Excitement about the new facility

In case some of you didn’t know, Illinois just opened up a brand-new state of the art practice facility.

The previously mentioned Ubben Complex is going to be used by both the men’s and women’s basketball programs — and Underwood cannot rave enough about it.

“This is the nicest basketball training facility in the country,” Underwood said.

He isn't lying either.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ubben is huge and has so much to offer for the program. It’s meant to be a place where players are going to want to be at.

“We’re in here all the time,” Underwood said. “Anything they need to make themselves the best basketball player they can be, we’re now offering them that. We want them to feel comfortable, but they want to be in there all the time.”

Something is for sure going right if players always want to be there. This facility is certainly a great step for this program and where they want to go from here.

“Facilites are huge,” Underwood said. “Period.”