For a few fortunate teams, the NCAA Tournament is still going. For the rest — including the Illinois Fighting Illini — it’s TRANSFER PORTAL SZN! While we don’t yet know how many players are staying and or going, it’s clear that Illinois’ roster is about to experience a significant makeover.
Jacob Grandison is out of eligibility (maybe?). Da’Monte Williams played more like a forward than a guard, and he’s graduating. Kofi Cockburn flirted with the portal and the NBA Draft last offseason and almost certainly will again this year. There’s also transfer speculation regarding Coleman Hawkins. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Omar Payne have uncertain roles heading into 2022-23. Incoming freshman Ty Rodgers figures to be in Brad Underwood’s rotation right away.
Even if Kofi comes back, Illinois will have holes to fill in the frontcourt. Here are 10 transfer targets to potentially keep an eye on.
Some of these names are players the Illini are already courting, while others are guys I’d like to see the team pursue that I believe would be good fits. Let’s take a look.
Fardaws Aimaq, Utah Valley
You wouldn’t normally expect a player from the WAC to be the most sought-after transfer on the market. But Fardaws Aimaq is no ordinary player.
The 6-foot-11, 245-pound center averaged 15.0 rpg in 2020-21 and 14.1 rpg in ‘21-22. In 32 contests this season, Aimaq posted 27 double-doubles for Utah Valley, and increased his scoring from 14 ppg to 19.2 ppg. And after attempting just one three-pointer last season, Aimaq connected on 17-of-40 attempts this past season (42.5%). Could I interest you in a guy averaging 20 & 15?
His rebounding prowess and ability to stretch the floor and pass out of the post has drawn comparisons to former Big Ten POY Luka Garza. Aimaq is reportedly entering the NBA Draft but will have his pick of high-major suitors if he returns to college.
Terrence Shannon Jr., Texas Tech
Although technically a guard, Shannon fits the mold of the “positionless” player that so many teams covet these days, so I lumped him in that somewhat-nebulous wing/swingman/forward category. However you choose to characterize him, the 6-foot-6 Chicago product is damn good.
Shannon has racked up 915 points, 299 rebounds, and 120 assists during his three seasons at Texas Tech. This shooting 90-for-198 (45.5%) from the field and 33-for-86 (38.4%) from outside.
He doesn’t project as a high-volume scorer, but Shannon is a fluid athlete with elite leaping ability and a tremendous motor who uses his size and strength to finish around the hoop. And you can’t play at Texas Tech without being willing to play on both ends — the Red Raiders finished #1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency.
Illinois was a finalist for Shannon in 2019. Hopefully the Illini can seal the deal in 2022.
Max Agbonkpolo, USC
A rotational player for three seasons at Southern Cal, Agbonkpolo blossomed in ‘21-22. A wiry 6-foot-9, 195-pounds, Agbonkpolo played 33 games for the Trojans (18 starts) this season and averaged 7.7 ppg and 3.5 rpg.
Agbonkpolo was a four-star recruit and the 5th-ranked player in California in the class of 2019. He can play multiple positions and has improved & progressed in each college season.
Agbonkpolo is a rangy, uber-athletic two-way player who could pay dividends for the Orange & Blue right away. A tandem of Coleman Hawkins and Agbonkpolo would be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
Keon Ambrose-Hylton, Alabama
Length. Athleticism. Versatility. Those are attributes the current iteration of the Illini frontcourt, with the exception of Coleman Hawkins, lacks. Ambrose-Hylton would instantly bring all of those traits to Champaign.
The 2020 four-star signee struggled to see the floor at Alabama, playing in only 29 games over two seasons. Ambrose-Hylton shot 11-of-16 from the floor in his limited action. At 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, he can play inside and out and is able to stretch the floor.
The Fighting Illini had previously offered Ambrose-Hylton, who could be primed for a breakout season given the opportunity.
Jaiden Delaire, Stanford
The 6-foot-9 senior entered the transfer portal on Mar. 16, and has already gotten attention from multiple high-major suitors. A Top 100 recruit in the 2018 class, Delaire was named Pac-12 Most Improved Player in 2020-21 and averaged 10.1 points and 4.0 rebounds for the Cardinal this past season.
Stanford coach Jerod Haase didn’t seem to utilize Delaire in a way that suits the former four-star’s skillset — Delaire was deployed more as a post-up big rather than a small forward or stretch-4. He is a versatile (there’s that word again!) player who can defend multiple positions and spot up from long range.
Delaire has one season of eligibility remaining as a grad transfer and would be a terrific depth addition for any program. He has heard from USC, Iowa, and Virginia Tech, among others.
Norchad Omier, Arkansas State
The reigning 2020-21 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, Omier upped his game this past season, claiming the SBC’s Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The first-ever Nicaraguan-born player in Division I, Omier averaged 17.9 ppg and 12.2 rpg. The 6-foot-7 forward also led the Sun Belt in field goal percentage (64.3%) was was among the league leaders in blocks (2.1) and steals (1.6) per game. He recorded 20 double-doubles and 21 double-digit rebound games in 29 contests.
In Arkansas State’s win over Air Force in December, Omier tallied 22 points, 16 boards, and six blocks. Against Louisiana-Monroe on Feb. 3, Omier was absolutely dominant — 23 points (8-12 FG, 7-12 FT), 26 rebounds (10 offensive). In the rematch one month later, he showed out again, scoring 35 points (16-21 FG) and pulling down 13 boards.
It remains to be seen if Omier can replicate these numbers against top-tier competition. But he’s tough, attacks the glass, and possesses Big Ten size (6-feet-7, 230 pounds).
Tamell Pearson, Western Illinois
A Chicago native, the 6-foot-10 Pearson was a former teammate of Illini great Ayo Dosunmu at Morgan Park HS, winning state championships in 2017 & 2018. Pearson began his career at UAB before transferring to the Leathernecks. Across two seasons in Macomb, he averaged 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in 53 games.
Pearson isn’t flashy but has been very dependable the last two seasons. He’s also shown that he can be a solid contributor on a guard-laden team.
Assistant coach Tim Anderson could try combing his Chicago resources to help reel Pearson in.
Neal Quinn, Lafayette
The 7-foot, 260-pound Quinn led the Leopards in points (14.7 ppg), rebounds (7.4 rpg), assists (4.0 apg), blocks (41) and field goal percentage (54.5%), and was named Second Team All-Patriot League.
Nobody can “replace” Kofi Cockburn but Quinn has similar size and is an efficient post scorer and slightly better foul shooter. He is an intriguing prospect because of his passing ability; you don’t typically see a seven-footer lead a team in assists — the biggest critique of Cockburn is that he isn’t very good at passing out of the post, though he did improve at it that season.
Loyola Chicago, NC State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Rutgers, Seton Hall & Virginia Tech have also been in contact.
Payton Sparks, Ball State
The Cardinals parted ways with coach James Whitford following a 14-17 season. Six players have departed the program within the past few weeks, with Sparks being the headliner. The Winchester, Ind., product averaged 13.5 ppg and 8.5 rpg for Ball State, finishing with 12 double-doubles. Sparks’ season culminated by being voted Third Team All-MAC as well as the league’s Freshman of the Year.
At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Sparks is a more of a pure post than a stretch-4, and may just be scratching the surface of his potential.
The Fighting Illini have already been in contact with Sparks. Arizona State, Indiana, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Loyola Chicago, Virginia & West Virginia are among the other programs reaching out.
KJ Williams, Murray State
The Racers won 31 games in 2021-22, including the Ohio Valley regular season and tournament titles, as well as a first round game in the Big Dance. Williams was figuratively and literally a large part of that. The 6-foot-10 junior averaged 18 points and 8.4 rebounds for Murray State, culminating in being dubbed OVC Player of the Year.
A four-year standout, Williams has posted 1,667 points and 888 rebounds in 124 games (90 starts). He’s a career 62% shooter from inside the arc and a 35% three-point shooter. Simply put, Williams is one of the best players in the transfer portal regardless of position.
The Cleveland, Miss., native will test the NBA Draft waters before deciding on his next stop.