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Why this year’s Illini are different

There’s a few reasons here.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Beware the ides of March.

It’s a heady bit of advice given to Julius Caesar, but Shakespeare’s classic line most certainly applies to college basketball players and their coaches. Mid-March marks not only conference tournaments, but the big dance itself: the NCAA Tournament.

Last year’s Illini shared the fate of Caesar, bowing out far earlier than they would have liked. However, just like spring brings new life, a new season brings fresh hopes and aspirations.

Although the 2021-22 Illini lost their best player and leader in Ayo Dosunmu to the NBA, this current iteration arguably — and astonishingly — surpassed them, at least in one aspect. Earning the Big Ten regular season title to rewrite the wrongs of last year’s finish was undoubtedly sweet, yet both players and fans are certainly yearning to rewrite Illinois’ March Madness story. After losing your best player, tone setter, and cold-blooded killer, how could one expect this team to go any further?

Here are three reasons why Illinois could bounce back without Ayo.

A Deeper Roster Chock Full of Veterans

Some stats for you to chew on:

  • Illinois lost two juniors (Ayo and Giorgi Beshanishvili) and added three freshmen, and still increased the average years of experience of the team by almost a full year (1.8 to 2.6)
  • Last year’s roster had 8 players getting some minutes beyond garbage time, as in you could say they were in the rotation. This year’s roster has 11.

Combine those two and what’s the result? A deeper roster chock full of veterans and role players that give Brad Underwood more to work with.

Depth was a problem last year and was especially evident come tournament time. The only player able to spell Kofi Cockburn was Beshanishvili, who was clearly not a fit at center. Against Loyola, only seven Illini played more than 7 minutes. A repeat of that seems inconceivable with the current depth.

“You have older guys that have been through it,” said Trent Frazier on Wednesday. “[They] had experience in the tournament, knowing you gotta compete at a high level in order to win.”

Not only does experience matter, but the continuity of culture as well.

“Yeah you gotta have good players,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “But you don’t do that without culture. We have a really good culture and really good players... [The players] lead; if I have to lead every single day, we aren’t going to be very good.”

The ability for Underwood to mix-and-match and give his starters longer spells with depth pieces that fit their roles better can only lead to better results in tournament time.

“I mix the lineups up on purpose,” Underwood said. “I want everybody to feel comfortable no matter who is out there with them.”

Alfonso Plummer and Three-Point Shooting

The 2021-22 Illini made a whopping 2.8 more three pointers per game than last year’s team, while only shooting 6% worse from beyond the arc. This year’s team attempted over 200 more three-pointers than last year’s in one fewer game and made over 70 more.

Much of that can be attributed to the addition of Alfonso Plummer.

The Third-Team All-Big Ten selection continued to show why he is one of, if not the best, three-point shooters in America. Leave him open and you will lose, it’s that simple. Despite Da’Monte Williams’ remarkable season, last year’s team simply did not have one of the best three-point shooters in the country, and as the game becomes more-and-more NBA-like, three-point shooting becomes all the more important.

The sheer gravitational pull Plummer creates opens up so much for his team, and is an element that will show up big in tournament time. Plummer is a player that can win tournament awards, he’s that good.

Beyond Plummer, the emergence of Jacob Grandison as a microwave, higher-volume three-point shooter (remember his game-saving shooting at Michigan State?) and the confidence of freshmen RJ Melendez and Luke Goode (both over 37% from 3) make Illinois a far more well-rounded offensive threat than the year prior.

Three-point shooting is vital for tournament success. Of the top six teams in all of college basketball in three-point attempts, FOUR made the Sweet Sixteen.

Young Guys Emerging, Roles Forming

Much of the spotlight follows the upperclassmen, many returning for one last ride, and rightly so. However, key pieces towards postseason success are the underclassmen emerging and finding roles to support those veterans.

The shining example of underclassmen development is Coleman Hawkins, whose size and myriad of basketball abilities gives Illinois a weapon it didn’t have last year.

“Coleman can be one of the best players in the league,” Underwood said. “I think his talent is showing. We’re starting to see that tremendous energy that he plays with. He cares so deeply about winning and he’s an instinctive player. He’s made some blocks this year that are just crazy good. I tell everyone he’s a great shooter, he just knows how to make winning plays.”

The combination of 6-foot-10 shot-blocking size with a toolbox of offensive moves creates a unique player that doesn’t quite compare to any player in recent memory.

“He’s a big piece of what we’re doing,” ended Underwood.

Illinois did *lose* an important young guy, however. Adam Miller, who transferred to LSU, may have drawn ire for his offense, but his defensive contributions did not go unnoticed. Luckily for Illinois, an unlikely fellow underclassmen stepped up to fill Miller’s role, and perhaps even surpassed him in it.

“Andre Curbelo is an elite defender,” Underwood said, a constant praise of Curbelo over the last few weeks. “Not good, elite defender. Hardly ever gets screened, one of the most instinctive players that I’ve ever coached, and he’s a great defensive rebounder.”

After his spectacular performance last year, few Illini fans would have believed Curbelo would pivot from point guard maestro to lock down defender. However with the absence of Adam Miller, a defending guard became a need, and Curbelo was there.

“Whatever I gotta do, I’m gonna be all in on it,” Curbelo said after the Michigan State game. “I thought I was aggressive against Michigan State playing defense, I’ve been trying to find other ways to be productive and help the team out.”

A well-rounded Curbelo is a better Curbelo for Illinois moving forward, because the offensive genius is still there, but the defensive genius is just starting to be appreciated.

“I think the biggest thing for us is our freshmen,” Frazier said when asked about differences between this year and last. “Really buying in, having that confidence in themselves, pushing us and competing hard. They’ve all been ready every time their name has been called and it’s been key for us excelling.”

High praise for the trio of Luke Goode, RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski, but it isn’t without merit. All three are long, athletic and instinctual players who give the Illini depth and size.

“I had RJ in at the end of the [Iowa] game,” Underwood said. “Those guys have great instincts, athleticism and strength.”

Clearly, Underwood isn’t afraid to play the freshmen, especially Melendez and Goode. A deeper, veteran-led team with better three point shooting is the core of the 2021-22 Illinois Fighting Illini, and it’s this core that can survive the loss of an All-American and potentially surpass the postseason success of the man who has his name hanging in the State Farm Center.