We’re officially in that part of the calendar year for basketball fans where we don’t know what to do. We can only watch highlights from last season’s Big Ten championship run or dwell on the disappointing end in the tournament.
Fortunately for us, after an offseason full of moves, we have reasons to be excited for the upcoming season. Let’s a take a look at a few of those:
The lack of wing depth the last few years has caused us to field undersized/guard heavy lineups. For example, the average height between Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Andre Curbelo, Da’Monte Williams, and Jacob Grandison was 6-foot-3, and Illinois had at least 3 of them on the floor at all times. This size disparity led to predictability on offense as we didn’t really drive to the rim from the perimeter. Our offense essentially was taking a 3-point shot after whipping the ball around amongst the guards or having Kofi post up in the paint.
Basketball is becoming more of a positionless sport, so teams at every level are trying to acquire players that give them the most lineup versatility without compromising on height. As Kevin Durant said, “It’s a wing’s league.” Thankfully, the Illini have a whole lot of them now.
It’s a wings league…— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) June 24, 2022
The Illini have a couple of experienced transfers coming over from the Big 12, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer, the latter of whom won a national title with Baylor in 2021. They also have a couple of returning wings in Luke Goode and RJ Melendez. And last but not least, Ty Rodgers, who will be arriving on campus after helping the USA U18 team win gold at the FIBA championships. (The last Illini to do that was Ayo Dosunmu!) These 5 guys have an average height of 6-foot-7, a huge upgrade over last year’s situation.
Having good wing depth and size allows Illinois to attack the rim more aggressively on offense (most of these guys can also hit the 3 ball), while maintaining size and physicality on defense. More importantly, we should be a better rebounding team overall, not reliant on a dominant big like we have become accustomed to. We should not run into a situation like the Houston game, where the Illini got dominated on the glass because they had too many guards on the floor.
Skyy Clark Recovery
Having all of those wings is great, but you still need a guard who can get them the ball… insert Skyy Clark.
As many know, Skyy (a 5-star recruit) was a surprise addition to the team after previously committing to Kentucky. Skyy is coming off an ACL tear and many thought he would take some time before seeing the floor for the Illini. But he seems to have made some great strides under the watchful eye of Illini strength coach Adam Fletcher.
"The data, it doesn't lie." -@skyyclark— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) July 12, 2022
Coach Fletcher and Skyy Clark work together on the force plates to gain key information during return to play protocol and to keep healthy on the court. #Illini | #EveryDayGuys | #BodyByFletch pic.twitter.com/5fkVDF7nLY
If he’s healthy and at his best, he will be the piece that makes this team go and should make everyone else around him better.
With Kofi’s departure, Brad Underwood also had the opportunity to retool at the big man position.
Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja will be trying to fill in the shoes of the All-American.
Hawkins came on nicely toward the end of last season and has come on the radar of NBA scouts; he’s projected to go in the second round in some 2023 mock drafts. Coleman will have a much larger role and will probably play a lot of minutes at the 5 in some of the smaller lineups. In fact, Illinois will probably be at its best running those smaller lineups because they will allow the Illini to maximize that wing depth we talked about earlier.
Dainja came over from Baylor after sitting out last year and should bring the physicality needed in some Big Ten games with his 6-foot-9, 270-pound frame. He also has a respectable jumper to complement his post play.
Hawkins’ and Dainja’s skillsets allow the Illini to open up the floor for a more dynamic offense as they can both be effective outside of the paint. It will also enable us to keep pace with some of the more prolific/fast-paced offenses seen outside of the conference.
We might be in for a bumpy ride in the beginning as all of the new pieces settle into Big Ten basketball, but Illinois has everything on paper to have another solid season. There is no reason to think we won’t be dancing again come March.
So, get excited. (But there are eight months until March, so pace yourself!)