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How Illinois can win a national championship in 2024

Hoops season is here.

Kansas City v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Happy hoops season.

It’s the most wonderful time of the Illini year. It’s scrutiny season. It’s time for us all to pore over box scores and rotations. We will question how many threes are being taken and how many assistant coaches should be relocated to Columbia, Missouri.

But let’s get excited. Obviously, this Illinois team has potential. They open the season ranked, so expectations are high. So let’s go all the way. Let’s look at the Illinois roster and decide what it will take for Illinois to win the big prize.

So enjoy the formula that will put 1989, 2005, and 2020 to shame.

*Please note that significant parts of this article are written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. So please use your better judgment while reading.*

Ty Rodgers - Follow the tradition.

Ty Rodgers is in a very bright spotlight. He brings a tantalizing package of skills to the Illini that we witnessed in small doses last season. His boundless energy and intensity make him a classic Underwood fever dream fantasy player. His defensive prowess, size, and length can make him a nightmare for opposing ballhandlers.

But he has to take another step forward for Illinois to win a national championship.

Ty is from Michigan. He’s a long, pass-first point guard.

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

In 1979, a Big Ten school rolled out a native Michigander who was 6’8 at point guard. That point guard led them to a national championship.

Who was the team? Michigan State University. Who was the point guard? Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

So his primary contribution to a potential national championship is to simply become Magic Johnson. If Ty can simply transform from being an excellent rising sophomore with superb intangibles and athleticism to being a hall-of-fame guard who won five NBA championships and overcame great odds to join the Dream Team.

Sencire Harris - Bear witness.

Sencire Harris is a frenetic joy to watch on the court. Much like Ty Rodgers, he brings a rare blend of energy and dogged determinism to the Illini. Also like Ty, he has to hit his free throws at a much higher clip this season. To preserve his place in the rotation, his offensive game has to evolve. He has to demonstrate skill as a secondary playmaker when he has the ball in his hands while maintaining his Tasmanian Devil presence on the defensive end.

Luckily for Harris, the path is crystal clear. He attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. In 2003, a senior from that program was taken first overall in the NBA draft and became in fact a legendary playmaker. His name? LeBron James.

All Sencire Harris has to do to help Illinois become national champions this year is to become LeBron James. Personally, I don’t know how Coach Underwood didn’t think of transforming Rodgers and Harris into Magic and LeBron. It seems so obvious that those two on the same team would be a force to be reckoned with in college basketball.

So a growth spurt and a reverse hairline procedure are in order. Stat.

Justin Harmon - Silence the doubter

I’m actually excited about Justin Harmon. He’s a Chicago kid and X-rays have shown that he does in fact have that dawg in him. He’s a tough, hard-nosed player. He’s the kind of guy you want in a conference brawl in February. He can score the ball and defend well, so his spot in the rotation is a clear one.

But he has one huge weakness. And honestly, I’m not even really sure it’s his fault.

Utah Valley v New Mexico Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

He’s not RayJ Dennis.

That is going to haunt him all season. Illinois fans were sold on Dennis and were certain that he would be wearing navy and orange this season. That didn’t happen because Scott Drew happened instead.

That sucks for Harmon, because at the time I am writing this story, he is in fact still not RayJ Dennis, and that is still a problem for a lot of Illinois fans. So why are we so confined to society’s norms and adherence to the status quo?

Justin, if you want to silence all of the Illinois faithful who look at you as a consolation prize (which you clearly aren’t, by the way), then you have to shape-shift into RayJ Dennis.

Now, that’s a lot to ask of you. I get that. I think Illini fans will give you until the beginning of conference play to do so. But I’d start working on it now because people tend to be impatient around here.

AJ Redd - Tap into mind control capabilities.

AJ, you are my favorite walk-on ever. You are the all-time assist leader for my alma mater, St. Ignatius College Prep. Your move from student manager to walk-on has made us all so proud of you.

As you know, your high school teammate Phoenix Gill is apparently in the process of making a big decision. He’s the most coveted legacy recruit for Illinois basketball in quite some time. His presence on campus would bring the kind of unadulterated joy that few people not named Ayo have created in the last 20 years.

So I want you to use the information you learned in Mind Control class senior year at Ignatius (dammit, I ruined the secret.) You have to psychically convince Phoenix that Iowa State isn’t worthy of his name and legacy, Northwestern is gross even though his mother went there, and Stanford isn’t really that good of a school anyway. And only your powers of neurolinguistic influence can make those realizations crystalize in Phoenix’s brilliant mind.

(Or you could just text him or something.)

Also, that may have a slightly lesser impact on the on-the-court stuff this season, but the vibes would be immaculate.

Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn - Spite his roots.

Gibbs-Lawhorn is an exciting prospect. He has shown himself to be a three-level scorer. He excelled at Overtime Elite and has drawn rave reviews as a two-way contributor since his arrival in Champaign. His presence represents a true recruiting win for the Illini. Poaching a West Lafayette native from Purdue seems like quite a coup.

But it’s not enough. As highly thought of as this Illinois team is, for some reason people seem to think Purdue is a better team. I can’t quite put my finger on their rationale, but it exists nonetheless.

So Dravyn, not only must you be a rotation cog on a contending team as a true freshman, but you have to actually haunt Purdue’s program. I don’t mean haunt them metaphorically by being an excellent player they will regret letting get out of their backyard. I mean literally following them around the country with a series of voodoo dolls, curses, spells, Horcruxes, and anything else you can think of.

That’s what it’s going to take to ward off the evil emanating from Mackey. Please be up for the challenge of supernatural tomfoolery on top of being a student-athlete. That’s how you can be a freshman hero on a team that brings a natty to Green Street.

Wait, that’s not what you were expecting? You thought I was going to hope for:

  • An improved jumper from Dain Dainja
  • Better health and more consistency from Luke Goode
  • Consistent shooting from Marcus Domask
  • Legitimate stretch 4 capabilities from Quincy Guerrier
  • Efficient rebounding in spot minutes from Amani Hansberry
  • Ty Rodgers improving his shooting
  • Sencire Harris playing more under control late in games
  • Justin Harmon excelling in catch-and-shoot opportunities
  • Better-than-expected playmaking from Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn
  • Continued development from Niccolo Moretti
  • A greater willingness to take over games from Terrence Shannon Jr.
  • Better shot selection and consistent playmaking from Coleman Hawkins

Ummmm, genius, none of those things could possibly contribute to winning basketball.