2022 Illinois Men’s Basketball is built different
This is a new era in Champaign, and it could be another great one.
Congratulations, head coach Brad Underwood. You’ve finally done it. You’ve got the team you wanted.
Don’t get me wrong, Coach. I know that having two First-Team All-Americans is a luxury most coaches crave. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn each served as the sun in the Illini galaxy, and did so with aplomb. So I’m not insinuating that you didn’t want them.
But we all know your dirty little secret.
(If we all know it, is it really a secret?)
Anyway, we know how much you love versatility. It’s your calling card. We’ve heard you say how much you like Texas Tech and Baylor. And you made your appreciation for their players especially clear this offseason.
In a positionless basketball world, the Illini reloaded with talented, impactful players who all bring necessary skills and traits to a team with NCAA Tournament dreams.
So let’s have a stroll into a world of makebelieve and magic and revel in some misguided optimism for the Illini newcomers. And because in my lifetime (see what I did there?) basketball and hip hop have always gone hand-in-hand, I’ll include a hip hop song that reminds me of each player.
(Please note this column is only discussing scholarship players on the Illinois roster.)
Dain Danja - Dainja was impressive in his debut with the Illini. He showed his scoring ability and showed up as a plus rebounder. No, he’s not Kofi. And that’s okay, because Kofi helped lay the foundation for Dainja’s potential with the Illini in practice last year. It is weird to think of Dainja as a newcomer since he transferred over a year ago. But his potential as an outside shooter and rim protector create the kind of positionless flexibility this roster is built to utilize. Be excited about his 15-20 minute performances that are bursts of energy and productivity. Also, props for keeping him away from the Gophers. Also, he gives me a chance to resurrect this gem from the 1990s.
Matthew Mayer - Here’s another versatile guy who has the skill set many top programs, including North Carolina, craved. As a Baylor transfer, he’s used to playing in a fluid system. He’s not necessarily an elite player in any one area, but he can guard multiple positions, shoot well, and act as a secondary playmaker in the half court. He even brought the ball up a few times against EIU. Mayer’s experience and potential as a team leader loom large for a team looking to break its first weekend March Madness curse. Mayer’s NBA future rides heavily on this season, so look for him to play like a free agent on a contract year. Hopefully, that championship pedigree will rub off on his teammates.
Terrence Shannon, Jr. - The Illini program’s white whale. He eluded Illinois as a prep prospect out of Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School. The school is best known for having an International Baccalaureate program, which is no surprise since Shannon is a tremendous student athlete. Off the court, he exudes intellect, poise, and preparedness. On the court he’s a thrill ride. He’s an intense defender and he dunks like the rim was flirting with his sister. He comes from Texas Tech, and he will be expected to play a bigger role with the Illini. He is an excellent shooter with wow factor athleticism. Look for him to be one of the leaders on this team (along with Coleman Hawkins and a gentleman who will be mentioned later). He is the most likely candidate to lead the Illini in scoring this season. His combination of explosiveness and intangibles could make him another Illini who re-emerges on NBA radars.
Skyy Clark - Illinois flipped Skyy from his previous commitment to Kentucky. Before suffering a knee injury, he was considered a five star prospect. He is an adept scoring guard with playmaking chops. He’s played against a high level of competition, and Coach Underwood is comfortable handing him the ball as a true freshman. Clark will be one of the higher profile members of the roster. If his health holds, by conference play I expect him to be one of the most dynamic lead guards in the Big Ten. He may not look like a surefire one-and-done, but he definitely has potential early entry written all over him. His ability to score in big moments could be the trait that makes him a special player in Illinois lore. Get hyped!
Sencire Harris - Harris will be a fan favorite. He has a dog mentality defensively, like Chester Frazier and Andres Feliz. He has tremendous length and leaping ability that make him a highlight reel finisher like Luther Head. The concern about Harris is how slight he is. But as every Illini fan has said at least once, “wait ‘til Fletch gets his hands on him.” As a freshman, he’ll be fighting to break into a crowded guard rotation. Be prepared to hear ad nauseam screeds about how Harris attended the same high school as LeBron James.
Jayden Epps - He’s a walking bucket. He is an aggressive combo guard who figures to make an impact early on in Champaign. He can score at multiple levels. He’s a Chester Frazier recruit from the DMV, so you can imagine what kind of intangibles he will bring to the court. He won’t be afraid of big moments and important games. His playmaking ability does need to catch up with his scoring if he wants to play in the NBA, but hopefully that’s years down the line. He may be the most gifted natural scorer on the entire roster. Add that to his willingness to defend aggressively, and Epps could be an All-Big Ten Freshman.
Ty Rodgers - I have to admit, I am irrationally thrilled about Ty Rodgers. Sure, the free throw shooting has to improve for him to stay on the floor during big games. But Coach Underwood threw him into the fire early against EIU, and I suspect he could be starting before the end of the season. His combination of intellect, relentless effort, and versatility remind a lot of fans of Draymond Green. And it’s even more special that Underwood snatched Rodgers right from the backyard of St. Thomas of East Lansing. Rodgers’ experience playing for Team USA this past year showcased the kind of well-rounded leader he can be for the Illini. In a positionless world, a guy who can be a primary facilitator and an elite rebounder could be king. I have no doubt that Rodgers will make massive contributions throughout his freshman season. If his shot can become more consistent, he won’t be long for Champaign. So enjoy him while he’s here. He’s the definition of an Everyday Guy.