Similar to Wisconsin losing its star Johnny Davis and Iowa losing All-American Keegan Murray, Illinois lost star center Kofi Cockburn, who declared for the NBA Draft a third and final time, forfeiting his remaining collegiate eligibility.
Joining Cockburn in exiting from the Illini were Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Alfonso Plummer to graduation; Austin Hutcherson to the professional ranks; and guard Brandin Podziemski (UC Santa Clara), guard Andre Curbelo (St. John’s), center Omar Payne (Jacksonville), forward Jacob Grandison (Duke) and center Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (South Carolina) to the transfer portal.
Losing so many core pieces from two Big Ten championship teams, Brad Underwood and Co. reached an inflection point and had to go about an almost wholesale roster change with the only meaningful returners being rising sophomores Luke Goode and RJ Melendez and rising junior Coleman Hawkins. The coaching staff responded in emphatic fashion, bringing in a top-10 recruiting class to go along with a top transfer class to usher in a new style of Illini basketball with new faces and skill sets that should keep the Illini in the thick of things in 2022-2023.
Offseason Activity in Review
The Illini’s high school signees include five-star recruit Skyy Clark (no. 30), Jayden Epps (no. 67), Ty Rodgers (no. 48), and Sincere Harris (no. 106) and French center Zacharie Perrin, which ranked in the top-10 in the country. The transfer class for Illinois included Baylor transfers Dain Danja and Matthew Mayer and Texas Tech transfer/Chicago native Terrence Shannon Jr., finishing as the No. 2 transfer class, per 247 Sports.
The coaching staff made its priorities clear with this recruiting class: get faster, longer, more athletic, and more versatile at every position. Illinois faced challenges against a long, athletic Houston team in the NCAA Tournament with frequently playing a trio of smaller guards Frazier, Plummer and Curbelo, along with Kofi Cockburn’s limited mobility. With this new front court of Perrin, Hawkins, Mayer, and Danja, the Illini have a new infusion of mobility, touch, play-making, and shooting that hasn’t been there in years past. Incoming wings Rodgers and Shannon really bolster the Illini’s defensive ceiling, while guards Harris, Epps, and Clark bring offensive punch with greater length, scoring instinct, and driving ability to power the Illini offense.
It says a great deal about Brad Underwood’s confidence level in this trio of young guards, as he hasn’t gone out to get a proven transfer at the position.
So what’s it all mean?
While we won’t know whether the Illini really “won” the offseason until the season tips off, the Illini really accomplished many of the priorities they set out to do. The Illini are going to be fast and athletic on both ends of the floor with more distributing and ball-handling skills that should create more driving lanes and ball movement to facilitate the offense, no longer solely focused on Kofi Cockburn’s interior dominance and surrounding three point shooting.
Given the significant youth, there will likely be bumps in the road as the dog days of a grueling Big Ten schedule can wear on younger players trying to find their footing at this level. However, this roster is looking less like a traditional Big Ten roster and more like the new-age position-less basketball that’s been taking the college and pro ranks by storm in recent years.
That should position them well to exploit the defensive limitations of top Big Ten big men Trayce Jackson-Davis, Hunter Dickinson, and Zach Edey and effectively counter high energy, versatile defensive teams like Houston.
With the right development of the young guards, along with the steadying presence of veterans Mayer and Shannon, Illinois is poised to be right back at the top of the league once again.