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Our “Way-Too-Early” Illini Starting Lineups

Illini basketball retooled in a big way this offseason.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Norfolk State vs Baylor Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Since the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament, the Illinois Fighting Illini have lost:

  • PG Andre Curbelo (transferred to St. John’s)
  • PG Trent Frazier (graduation)
  • SG Alfonso Plummer (graduation)
  • SG Brandin Podziemski (transferred to Santa Clara)
  • G/F Da’Monte Williams (graduation)
  • PF Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (transferred to South Carolina)
  • C Kofi Cockburn (NBA Draft)
  • C Omar Payne (transferred to Jacksonville)

For a brief period time things looked fairly bleak for the Illini. Many questions lingered: Who was going to take over the reins? How would this roster fare against the rest of the Big Ten? Who was going to score? Who were the leaders of the program going to be? It became clear that Illinois had to find reinforcements and find them fast.

The first proverbial domino fell when five-star guard Skyy Clark committed to the Fighting Illini (on live television!) in early April.

Then, Chicago native Terrence Shannon Jr. transferred to Illinois from Texas Tech. And earlier this week, Baylor transfer forward Matthew Mayer withdrew from the NBA Draft and pledged to Illinois.

The knock on last season’s roster — most specifically — was the lack of positional versatility. Other than Grandison, Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez and Williams, Illinois didn’t have a ton of situational flexibility, notably on defense. And we’ve seen recent examples of programs like Houston and Baylor creating mismatches for opposing teams due to their length, size and athleticism.

With Shannon and Mayer now on board, Brad Underwood and his staff have added two immediate-impact veteran transfers who can defend, create shots, and spread the floor.

One problem has been addressed, while another — more fun? — problem has now been created: What will the starting five look like?

Unless another veteran guard joins the Illini, the consensus is that Clark will begin the 2022 season as the starting point guard. Hawkins and TSJ should also be locks to start, but as you’ll see later on here, BU has a lot of choices if Hawkins comes off the bench. And then there’s those other two spots where Underwood can really get creative.

At 6-foot-9, Mayer would be the most logical choice at forward. But what about Dain Dainja, the other former Baylor big? Physically, Dainja looks like a hybrid of Cockburn and Hawkins, and the coaching staff has raved about his athleticism. And what about Melendez? The rising 6-foot-7 sophomore showed lots of promise late in the season, and he also merits serious starting consideration (I think Bret’s combination is the one that makes the most sense, FWIW).

But Luke Goode is still in Champaign. Jacob Grandison has until June 1 to decide whether or not to return (after reportedly withdrawing from the NBA Draft this weekend). Springy 6-foot-6 freshman Ty Rodgers was another guy penciled in as a potential starter until Shannon and Mayer arrived. And what if Illinois adds another transfer? The Fighting Illini are still linked to Northwestern transfer Pete Nance, among others.

Depth, size, versatility. Illinois’ roster has undergone a massive overhaul this offseason. Can all the pieces fit together? Can the Illini finally break through in March? It’ll be a hell of a lot of fun to find out.

And here are a few potential options from our Jack Jungmann:

Starting Lineup Option #1:

PG: Skyy Clark

SG: Terrence Shannon

SF: RJ Melendez

PF: Matthew Mayer

C: Coleman Hawkins

While I put labels on each player’s position, those would truly just be labels. This group would play the most positionless basketball maybe ever seen at the University of Illinois. Almost all five players can guard 1-5 and have scoring ability from all three levels. This group may lack interior defense and rebounding, but with the lower quality of big men in the Big Ten this year, I don’t see that being as big of an issue as maybe it would’ve been in years past.

Starting Lineup Option #2:

PG: Skyy Clark

SG: Terrence Shannon

SF: Matthew Mayer

PF: Coleman Hawkins

C: Dain Dainja

If BU were to roll out this lineup, it would solve the problem of interior defense and rebounding presented by option No. 1. However, this lineup presents a little bit of a spacing problem. Dainja can hit the three ball but not consistently. In this lineup, Dainja would be forced to play the role that Kofi did this past year. Can he do it?

Starting Lineup Option #3:

PG: Skyy Clark

SG: Terrence Shannon

SF: RJ Melendez

PF: Matthew Mayer

C: Dain Dainja

This lineup probably hasn’t been on many radars for fans of the Illini, but I think it is a strong possibility BU sits Coleman Hawkins to start the season. Given the inconsistencies Hawkins presented last year, it wouldn’t shock me to see Underwood opt into the National Championship pedigree and leadership Mayer brings at the 4 spot.

In all scenarios, I see Luke Goode being a huge 3 & D piece off the bench. I also expect Ty Rodgers to come in and immediately make a positive impact.

Which lineup should Underwood and the staff roll with for Game 1? Let us know!