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Big holes remain on Illinois’ roster

Where do the Illini stand with portal targets?

Indiana v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It truly is Portal SZN. And the Illini are partying like they are the No. 1 party school in the nation.

(I don’t care what the rankings say, ain’t no party like a frat house-apartment-bar-apartment party crawl in Champaign.)

Anyway, the Illini have had a busy offseason that somehow started midseason.

The roster churn rate for the Illini hasn’t been…elite.

Since the beginning of the season, the roster has lost Skyy Clark, RJ Melendez, Brandon Lieb and Jayden Epps to the transfer portal.

Terrence Shannon Jr. is considering his NBA potential and Coleman Hawkins is already going through the draft process (with the chance to return).

Fortunately, the Illini were able to replenish some of that depth by importing Zacharie Perrin and Niccolo Moretti from Europe.

Scratch that, Perrin is already back home in France.

Also, walk-ons Paxton Warden and Connor Serven have left the program.

Can someone get some NIL money for AJ Redd, stat?

Anyway, SIU transfer wing Marcus Domask should bring shooting and versatility to an Illini core potentially lacking experience.

Southern Illinois v Butler Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

And combo guard Justin Harmon should bring Chicago toughness and scoring prowess to the Illini backcourt.

As things stand right now, these are the scholarship players on the Illini roster.

  • Sencire Harris (announced his return)
  • Ty Rodgers
  • Luke Goode (announced his return)
  • Dain Dainja (announced his return)
  • Amani Hansberry (signed National Letter of Intent)
  • Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn (signed National Letter of Intent)
  • Niccolo Moretti
  • Marcus Domask (verbal commit)
  • Justin Harmon (verbal commit)

Before we dig in, let’s state the obvious. If either Shannon or Hawkins returns, the calculus for roster construction changes pretty dramatically. If both return, it’s party time on Green Street. If both depart, the portal stakes increase and the roster churn becomes an even more daunting challenge.

The backcourt is still in flux.

With the departures of Clark and Epps, the Illini are left sans a ready-to-play point guard. While Niccolo Moretti is an intriguing long-term piece, if Illinois goes into the 2023-24 season with him in the starting lineup, it means something went horribly wrong in the portal.

Utah Valley vs UAB Photo by Louis Grasse/Getty Images

Justin Harmon has some playmaking ability. At Utah Valley, he showed ability as both a facilitator and a finisher in ball screen action. But last season, Harmon had 106 assists and 112 turnovers. That’s not exactly the statistical background of a Big Ten PG1.

Ty Rodgers has shown that he can be a capable playmaker. And he looks like an ideal secondary facilitator in the half-court. But the Illini are unlikely to move him to point guard as a permanent starter as a sophomore.

In the portal, the depleted Illini roster needs one, possibly two point guards. Perhaps the team can make do with one point guard and Harmon if the staff feels comfortable with Rodgers, Harris, and a returning Hawkins or Shannon.

Here’s the problem: many of the Illini’s top backcourt targets in the portal are off the board.

Baylor star LJ Cryer is off to Houston to play for [Name Redacted].

Temple guard Damian Dunn is also headed to Houston to play for he who shall remain unnamed.

VCU guard Ace Baldwin is following his former coach to play at Penn State. Nope, he totally won’t be an Illini killer at all.

Delaware bloodline favorite Jameer Nelson Jr. is off to play for Jamie Dixon at TCU.

Washington State combo guard TJ Bamba has narrowed his list to Georgia Tech and Villanova.

North Texas guard Tylor Perry has eliminated the Illini from his list. But he kept the Gophers there, so he’s also totally not going to be an Illini killer.

Yes, I have heard the rumors about a well-known, accomplished point guard from a west coast powerhouse possibly entering the portal. But that player entered the Portsmouth Invitation Tournament. This year, Courtney Ramey had to serve a three-game suspension for entering the same tournament and returning to college. So perhaps expectations should be tempered on that front.

So, unfortunately, no solid answers exist here. But it is crystal clear that a primary facilitator/ballhandler is still the biggest need on the Illini roster.

Whatever the story between the Illini and Jeremy Fears was, that recruiting loss stings even more now.

Losing Clark and Andre Curbelo (who is also back in the portal) has created a long-term point guard vacuum. Perhaps the Illini can find a multi-year solution in the portal. But as of this moment, neither prep nor portal point guard recruiting has a clear answer from this staff.

So what guards are still on the board for Illinois?

Notre Dame transfer Cormac Ryan, more known as a knock-down shooter, is still available. He would make sense for the Illini, especially if Shannon goes to the NBA.

Grand Canyon (fill in the Jerry Colangelo hope speak here) transfer Chance McMillian is available. Coleman Hawkins is courting Chance publicly. He’d be a productive, experienced on-ball facilitator with a steady stroke from beyond the arc.

Colorado State guard Isaiah Rivera is an excellent shooter. The native of Geneseo, Illinois, would be an excellent fit as a catch-and-shoot role player on a team that shot poorly for large chunks of important games last season.

Former Illini commit AJ Storr had a good first season at St. John’s but left as a part of the Pitino exodus. Storr’s shot and physicality along with his multi-positional, multi-year availability make him a great fit in theory. I am not sure if the staff will pursue him, but his game could be a fit.

The big man situation is fluid at best.

Dain Dainja showed flashes of excellence last season. But without the depth expected from Perrin and Lieb, the Illini are left without a lot of size.

Incoming freshman Amani Hansberry projects as a 4-5 man with versatility. But it’s difficult to project a true first-year player into 20 minutes.

Again, a returning Coleman Hawkins softens the blow for the Illini. But as of now, Coleman Hawkins is not on this roster.

The roster needs more size to hold down the fort until Morez Johnson arrives on campus and dominates the conference.

Much like the backcourt, many of Illinois’ big man options are off the board.

Kel’el Ware is going to play for Mike Woodson in Bloomington.

Micah Handgloten has committed to Florida.

Potential stretch 5 Jamison Battle has committed to Ohio State.

Hunter Dickinson…well, he’s not likely to be wearing orange and blue anytime soon. Not unless he loses a bet. Someone make a bet with Hunter Dickinson, please.

So who is left?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 SEC Tournament - LSU vs Georgia Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LSU transfer Shawn Phillips is known to have been contacted by the Illini. He is raw, and wouldn’t be asked to immediately start. He could be a rim-running, rim-protecting force for 5-12 minutes per game while he develops a more well-rounded game under Geoff Alexander…or whomever is coaching Illini big men next season. Phillips has tremendous value as a multi-year option.

Wyoming big man Graham Ike is still available. While he hasn’t been linked to the Illini publicly, the 6-foot-9 post player is widely viewed as a top-10 transfer.

Kadin Shedrick has been linked publicly to the Illini. The Virginia center played well against Illinois this past season in Las Vegas. He’s talented, and able to make an immediate contribution.

In the end, the portal entry window is open for another month.

We can debate how well the talent on the roster has been deployed under Brad Underwood. We can discuss how the pieces have historically fit. We can talk about how last season’s roster was the roster Coach Underwood wanted in terms of versatility and switchability. We can even talk about team chemistry and long-term priorities.

This portal season won’t solve all of the problems we kvetch about as fans. But it will go a long way in determining what the 2023-24 outlook for Illini Men’s Basketball truly looks like.