Illinois is a basketball school anyways.
As October bleeds into November and the football team struggles, fans are turning their attention to Fighting Illini basketball. And for the first time in over a decade, that includes both basketball teams.
Both the men’s and women’s teams are ranked in the AP Preseason poll for the first time since 1999, and they are the only Big Ten team with both teams ranked this preseason.
The excitement around both teams is palpable.
On the men’s side, a great start to last season included wins over top-10 teams in UCLA and Texas, but a late season slide due to the team’s spacing and lack of a true point guard doomed them to a first round exit as a 9-seed.
On the women’s side, they upset Iowa, who made the national championship game, and while they struggled against top-tier competition in the Big Ten, they still won 22 games. Surprisingly, though, they were forced into the First Four of the tournament as an 11-seed and lost.
Still, there is reason to expect both teams to be much better this season. But what exactly should fans expect? Let’s take a look:
Top 4 in the Big Ten, Sweet 16
It has to be this season, right?
Brad Underwood has reinvigorated Fighting Illini basketball in his time here, with top-30 recruits in the country and getting Illinois back to the top of the Big Ten. They’ve won the most Big Ten games over the last four seasons, and won two* regular season titles and a conference tournament. They’ve also picked up some quality non-conference wins.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t translated to March Madness success. In 2021, the Illini were upset by in-state rivals Loyola. In 2022, they were dominated by an underseeded Houston. In 2023, they came up short against Arkansas.
You could point to some flaws on each of those teams that on paper Underwood may have fixed this season. He has put together a team that is long, strong, versatile, and experienced. Illinois can matchup size-wise with anyone in the country. That was an issue in 2021 and 2022, as the team was very good but limited mainly to 4 guard, 1 big lineups centered around Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, and Kofi Cockburn. Now, they can run small-ball lineups, big lineups, and everything in between. They also have more depth than those teams. Legitimately, a 10-man rotation is possible.
With Terrence Shannon Jr and Coleman Hawkins, two NBA prospects, back with all their experience under their belt; the second year for guys like Dain Dainja, Sencire Harris, Ty Rodgers, and Niccolo Moretti; incoming freshmen Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn and Amani Hansberry; and transfers Quincy Guerrier, Justin Harmon, and Marcus Domask; plus a fully healthy Luke Goode, this team is better equipped with more experience, secondary playmaking, and shooting. Plus, no Skyy Clark drama.
The team failed to get RayJ Dennis, but I believe with Ty Rodgers running the point and the other transfers and Goode’s return, the three-point shooting will improve enough to make up for the losses of Matthew Mayer, Jayden Epps and RJ Melendez.
So, is it really crazy to think this team, which showed its highs beating UCLA and Texas (but also its lows getting blown out by Missouri and losing to Ohio State) with some tweaks and more experience together can make it that far? I think not.
Top 6 in the Big Ten, Round of 32
Head coach Shauna Green has brought the women’s team back to relevance after two decades of struggles. A good season ended somewhat prematurely in South Bend against Mississippi State, but most of the team returns. The Big Ten also gets a little weaker, though Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana, and Maryland are still projected above Illinois. They can improve on their sixth-placed finish and nab the fifth spot at least.
Genesis Bryant, Makira Cook, and Kendall Bostic all enter their senior year. The Illini get some reinforcements from the class of 2023 (Cori Allen, Gretchen Dolan) and some size in the transfer portal (Shay Bollin, Camille Hobby). And most of the supporting cast returns in Adalia McKenzie, Jada Peebles, and Brynn Shoup-Hill. Teams like Maryland lost multiple players to the WNBA Draft.
While the gap between Iowa/Indiana to Illinois may be too big to bridge, the experience this team has, plus addressing their issues of size and rebounding in the portal, make them a sneaky team to break into the second tier of Big Ten contenders. Bryant and Cook are absolute bucket-getters, and Bostic was a double-double machine. This team may be ready to take the leap.
March Madness is a different beast; it would be unfair to expect them to go very far. But a win or two in the tournament would amount to a hugely successful season, and would improve a strong recruiting base for 2024 and ‘25.