Good morning, Illinois Land!
We are just three measly days away from the start of the 2023-24 Illinois men’s basketball season. The time is nigh.
Before we look ahead at the team that head coach Brad Underwood has assembled in Champaign, and what that reflects, let’s take a look back at two of the previous teams that Underwood composed since he arrived in CU.
Let’s start by looking at the most recent rendition of the Illini, the squad from last year.
Underwood assembled a gang of misfits, because that was his best option. The Goode injury and Melendez meltdown didn’t help. Oh...Skyy Clark.
A year ago at this time, Illinois fans were cautiously optimistic that some of the freshmen from the previous year would take a giant step forward. Underwood was able to secure transfers like Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja from Baylor, seemingly refilling the pot with water.
Freshmen Jayden Epps, Sencire Harris and Ty Rodgers would likely fight for playing time, and start the newest cycle of the Illinois core. Skyy Clark was the highest rated prospect since Ayo. He was supposed to lead the Illinois backcourt, cemented as the Day 1 PG1.
It was not to be. At all.
After two unbelievable non-conference wins — No. 6 UCLA in Vegas and No. 2 Texas at MSG for the Jimmy V Classic — it was all downhill from there.
It happened fast. By Christmas.
Skyy Clark announced he was stepping away from the program temporarily, which either morphed into permanence, or that was the game plan all along. The latter is my theory.
Fellow freshman Jayden Epps assumed the role to much acclaim. After a concussion and lackluster finish to the season by Epps, he announced he was transferring. He now plays for Ed Cooley at Georgetown. Epps reportedly had 46 points in a secret scrimmage.
Because, of course he did.
That’s not all. Here’s a few more dandies from last year.
- Melendez was removed from the starting lineup, and suspended. He couldn’t make a shot.
- Mayer seemingly was the central figure of several scandals: Communicationgate, Monstergate, BadThreeGate...among others.
- Blown out by Mizzou in Braggin’ Rights. Underwood had to abandon the “switch everything” on defense and employed the “switch everything on his defensive strategy.”
- Illinois gave up career-highs in points to seemingly every conference opponent the entire season.
- Fartgate: Underwood made a literal fart noise into the microphone when asked about the leadership of TSJ after his team was blown out at home by Penn State.
I’m sure there are more, but these are the most prominent in my mind.
The team could beat anyone, and lose to anybody. End result: 20-11, lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed to Arkansas.
Now...Let’s take a look at 2020-21 team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. T
The Ayo and Kofi team was built on stars and talent. It ended poorly, but that’s not point of this column.
We all know the finish. A round of 32 loss to in-state Loyola-Chicago by double figures.
Finishing at 24-7, with a final AP Poll ranking of No. 2, this Illinois squad had the most overall talent since the Final Four team of Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Easily.
Ayo turned into the best closer we had ever seen, and Kofi put up 20 and 10 like it was a pedestrian accomplishment.
Big Ten teams couldn’t handle the physicality of Kofi, nor the shot-making ability of Ayo.
Sprinkle in freshmen stars Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller, and it seemed like a recipe for success in March, and a team that could get Underwood & Co. into the second weekend of the tournament with ease.
After getting trounced by Loyola, then-head coach Porter Moser exposed several flaws in the Illinois offensive and defensive game plan, and relegated Ayo to a turnover machine and used their skilled big man to draw Kofi away from the basket.
It was not pretty. It was frustrating. It was unexpected.
This is the game where the Underwood Narrative started to get written.
The narrative began that he was a great coach in the Big Ten, but didn’t have the wherewithal to get the team to the next level in the NCAA Tournament.
This narrative was also exacerbated by the departure of outgoing freshman Adam Miller, who started every game and played a whole bunch of minutes. Fans and media were perplexed by the decision, as was the coaching staff. That left a big hole.
The same story continues to this very day.
Curbelo did the same thing the following year, after another round of 32 loss.
The carousel began. It seemed like Underwood couldn’t get ahead.
The 2023-24 version of the Illini is what Underwood has wanted all along. An old team with swagger and toughness. Add some younger players to be mentored, and you can lay the foundation moving forward.
I don’t know how many games this team will win in the regular season. The same can be said for the NCAA Tournament.
The Maui Strong game at State Farm Center answered some of the questions for this Illinois team. The point guard situation, although fluid, is not in the dire straits that some in the media have purported.
As the game wound down against Kansas and Bill Self, Underwood turned to five guys with a combined age of 111 to bring the victory home.
You know that Underwood loves that. You know it.
Terrence Shannon, Jr. and Coleman Hawkins looked like the perfect complements to each other. They scored a combined 42 points on 24 shots (1.75 points per shot).
The duo was 9-of-18 from beyond the arc.
Not one single player or coach batted an eye.
This was a display of maturity that wasn’t even remotely present last season. It’s now a staple.
The roles are clearly defined. Already. Underwood definitely loves that.
Underwood talks to NBC Sports about his emphasis on gaining experience and maturity through the portal. It was intentional.
In classic Underwood fashion, he was open and honest with the media in the offseason. Coupling the departure of Epps and Illinois failing to land from RayJ Dennis (went to Baylor), his squad was seemingly left without an obvious point guard to run the offense.
BU was adamant that Ty Rodgers, a sophomore uber athlete and rebounder, would be able to handle the role.
To some, a head-scratching-smartest-guy-in-the-room move to stir up controversy.
To others, a wait-and-see attitude.
Albeit one game, and an exhibition at that, it looks like Rodgers will be able to at least do his share at that position. I would bet that transfer Justin Harmon ends up transitioning to that spot full time by the time 2024 rolls around.
Just a hunch.
KenPom is high on the balance that Illinois offers on both ends of of the court. I expect the efficiency numbers to sharply climb, in rapid fashion.
In the initial rankings, KenPom.com has Illinois:
- No. 19 overall (+20.16)
- No. 18 on offense (109.3)
- No. 21 on defense (89.2)
As a reminder these are efficiency ratings that are pace of play and opponent adjusted. This is a fair starting point for this squad.
The opening win against Kansas would drastically affect these numbers. Kansas is the KenPom Preseason No. 1 overall defense, and No. 2 overall team (behind Purdue).
Please take The Scientific Poll.
How many wins will Illinois men’s basketball have this year?
This poll is closed
Less than 20
This is Year 7. This is getting older. This is getting better.
This is Illinois basketball.