Stephen Cohn: 14-6 Regular Season, Big Ten Tournament Champions
I just don’t see how Brad Underwood doesn’t have this team rolling like a well-oiled machine by March. You saw what they could do against Syracuse on Tuesday (even if the Orange aren’t very good), and even when the Illini aren’t playing their best ball, they’re still going to win a majority of the nights. Just too much talent on this team.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, I think it’s really good this year, and there’s a good chance the Illini never find a way to slow down a TJD or Zach Edey, and that could hurt them in the Big Ten Tourney. But I rather just think about how Brad is going to often will this team to a victory, and these early-season challenges (UVA, Texas) are only going to help them later on.
Matt Rejc: 12-8 Regular Season, Big Ten Tournament Semifinals
The Illini are loaded with talent this season, and the recent neutral court win over #8 UCLA certainly bodes well. That said, my main concern with the Illini is their ability to develop another go-to scorer besides Terrence Shannon. Without a major leap from Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez, Dain Dainja, or at least one of the freshmen, then opposing squads can double team Shannon to shut him down and force one of the other players to try to win the game for Illinois. That’s effectively what Virginia did, and it worked out well for them. Less talented Big Ten opponents probably won’t be able to use this approach, but teams like Ohio State, Purdue, and Indiana could consistently get the advantage over Illinois by negating Terrence Shannon.
I see Jayden Epps eventually emerging as Illinois’ main go-to scorer outside of Shannon, similar to how Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill emerged as real scoring threats midway through the 2013-2014 season after teams began to focus on Rayvonte Rice. Although the Illini may drop some winnable games early on in conference play, I’m confident they’ll finish the year strong and be primed for a long NCAA Tournament run in March.
Will Charlton: 15-5 Regular Season, Loss in Big Ten Final
This team has a pretty favorable Big Ten schedule in my eyes. I can probably see a few slip-ups but they will win the ones they have to and will win a few key ones on the road. I think 15-5 gives them a great chance to repeat as regular season champs, but I don’t think they’ll get the job done in the tournament.
They’ll run into a team like maybe MSU who’s strung a few wins in a row together at the end of the season and they’ll fall just short. I’m so excited for the rest of this season because the ceiling is so high for this team. It’s higher than it’s been the past two years whether you like to hear that or not.
Drew Pastorek: 15-5 Regular Season, Loss in Big Ten Semifinals
The Fighting Illini begin conference play with Maryland (away), Penn State (home), Northwestern (away), Wisconsin (home), and Nebraska (away). A 5-0 or 4-1 start is definitely plausible. Illinois also has the good fortune of playing some of the Big Ten’s recent heavyweights – Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Purdue – only once. By the time full-time league play rolls around in early January I believe we will have a much clearer picture of what Brad Underwood’s team will look like.
Plus, Illinois should have Luke Goode back from his foot injury, which should supply them with a veteran punch off the bench. The Illini showed in the Main Event that they can play with any team in the country. If they can improve their foul shooting and establish a true secondary scoring option, their prospects to repeat as Big Ten champs will be much, much higher.
Jack Jungmann: 14-6 Regular Season, Win Big Ten Tournament
This team is gonna lose some games they shouldn’t. Just get ready for it, it’s gonna happen. 14-6 seems reasonable to me. Here’s my take: Illinois opens Big Ten play with a loss in College Park. It just seems like Maryland has our number, and they’re actually kinda good. Other than that, I’ll go through my thoughts on how I got 14 wins. I think we sweep our “home only” opponents in Michigan, MSU, and Rutgers. Our “away only” games are Iowa, Purdue, and Maryland. I could very well see us losing all 3 of those, but I think we’ll get Iowa. That puts us at 4-2. We play Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin both home and away. I think we split with Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, then sweep the rest. Those are the games, in my mind, that we should win. However, it is college basketball, and most times, things don’t go according to plan. I’m budgeting for one loss that we shouldn’t take, just because I think it’ll happen. I think 14 wins will be good for the 2nd or 3rd seed in the Big Ten Tournament. This team has the perfect build to get hot in March. Give me the Illini to cut the nets down in Chicago.