While the attention of the Illini faithful is fully focused on the gridiron (rightfully so!) the tipoff for the basketball season has crept up on us. The Illini kick off the season Monday against Eastern Illinois at the State Farm Center in what’s slated to be an exciting year.
Let’s take a look at what we should expect for this season.
Growing Pains to Start the Season
Taking the exhibition game against Quincy as an example, more than 75% of the minutes were played by players not on the team last year. With that comes the reasonable assumption that the season will start off with some growing pains as freshmen get adjusted to the speed of college basketball and transfers adjust to Underwood’s system and the Big Ten at large.
The schedule is also challenging early with games against UCLA and Baylor/Virginia in Las Vegas, Syracuse at home, and Texas at Madison Square Garden. I think we lean on Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer’s experience early on to guide us through tricky situations, and also expect RJ Melendez and Coleman Hawkins to come out of the gate playing well like they showed in the exhibition game.
If Illinois can enter conference play with no more than 2 losses — while also getting the freshmen quality minutes — it will be a good start to the season.
Take Care of Business in the Big Ten
The preseason polls have Indiana and Michigan in front of the Illini, two teams who Underwood has gone 9-1 against combined in the last 3 seasons. Coach Underwood can use this oversight the media is showing toward the Illini as motivation to get the team ready for the gauntlet that the Big Ten regular season always is.
The Illini have stacked three straight 20+ win seasons, so it’s fair to say the baseline for expectations have increased as a result. Barring any injuries, by the time the conference schedule rolls around Illinois should have its rotations figured out and have acclimated the younger players to Underwood’s system.
We should expect this team to replicate success of the last few years and compete for the double bye in the Big Ten Tournament and stay in contention throughout the year for the regular season title.
Take the Next Step in the Tourney
Underwood has done a stellar job in recruiting and regular season basketball, but he has not made it to the second weekend of the tournament yet. The next step for the Illini is to make a run in the March Madness tournament.
What’s bogged us down at times in the tourney has been an inability to adapt to different playing styles from the Big Ten, and some of that is partially due to having personnel suited to only one style of play. After the departure of Kofi and the new additions, Illinois has the lineup versatility this year to match up well with any team on both ends, regardless of their playing style.
I feel confident that this is the year the Illini take the next step and make it to the Sweet 16 at least; there’s just too much talent on this roster to expect anything less. It all just depends on the growth and development of the younger players during the season.
With that being said, it does feel good to think about how Illinois will perform in the tourney, instead of stressing out whether we’ll even get a chance to make it to the dance. We’ve come a long way as a program in the last few years.