Happy Thursday, Illini Nation!
It’s been a minute since I’ve talked about Illinois basketball. The absence is partly due to the fact that the season ended so poorly with a resounding thud, and mostly due to the fact that rumor and innuendo are nearly impossible to analyze.
Separating fact from fiction remains difficult. Now, don’t get it twisted. I don’t have a bevy of insider knowledge about the new faces arriving this summer at Ubben, joining Brad Underwood for Year 7 in quest of his first second weekend in the Big Dance.
Enough of the churn materialized this week to provide insight, as we sit in mid-April.
Portal SZN is recapped by The One and Only Pleas Hollywood expertly here.
Underwood hosted several of his contemporaries (Fran McCaffery, Fred Hoiberg and Tom Izzo pictured below) in the Big Ten during a Coaches vs. Cancer event in Champaign over the weekend. Purdue head man Matt Painter did not make the band’s photo.
If the B1G had a boy band…— Brad Underwood (@CoachUnderwood) April 12, 2023
Best band name wins a signed jersey from yours truly pic.twitter.com/iDK3lb5Ykv
This photo looks like Hoiberg is getting married for the second time and his uncles are in from out of town. His mom snapped a quick candid for the coffee table album.
Underwood definitely finds something funny in the above photo, and seems to be enjoying the company of his peers during the offseason. One thing he doesn’t seem to enjoy — but has embraced — is perpetual uncertainty.
Underwood addressed the media at his event.
The Illini wanted to get older and more experienced through the portal.
“We wanted to get a little bit older. Experience was vital.” Underwood said.
Adding Marcus Domask (SIUC) playing 35 minutes a game for four years, and Justin Harmon (Utah Valley) with four years as an experienced scorer provides a suitable stop gap with massive departures since the last game of the season.
It’s been well-documented that starting PG Jayden Epps bolted for Georgtown, and RJ Melendez has been contacted by over 20 schools since entering the portal.
One interesting note: zero Big Ten schools are “in” on Melendez’s new recruitment.
At first glance, Domask is an upgrade over Melendez. Time will tell if that prediction becomes a reality.
Harmon had more turnovers than assists in 2022-23. He is an athletic guard who can shoot it at times and has a score first mentality. Harmon would have been cookie cutter for this year’s squad with that profile.
Although both of these transfers will be able to contribute immediately this fall, neither player is likely the missing piece to carry the BU regime to another Big Ten title or a first Sweet 16 (and beyond) in the NCAAT.
If Underwood plans on making it a fifth-straight tournament, both of these transfers cannot be in the starting lineup. There is work left to do in the portal.
The departure of a freshman and sophomore starter (again) says Underwood doesn’t make promises to guys already on the roster.
With the constant turnover at the top of the roster every offseason, trying to finger the reason becomes an annual tradition.
Epps and Melendez follow Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo before them. More uncertainty.
The uncertainty within games for the Illini in the 2022-23 season has carried over lock, stock and barrel into Portal SZN. Underwood seems comfortable with this seemingly infinite supply of ambiguity.
It seems like Underwood was unwilling to guarantee either departed player with a solidified role into the future, nor was he eager to put their names in ink in the starting five.
Underwood’s constant growth mindset is noble, but executing on the court becomes a near impossibility with constant uncertainty, either from a roster standpoint or what the team is going to do on ball screens.
“We’re not done, yet. There’s no doubt about that. We still gotta add some pieces.” Underwood said. “We’ll keep working that every day.”
[INSERT RUMOR OF HIHGLY TOUTED PORTAL GUARD AT YOUR LEISURE]
Terrence Shannon, Jr. and Coleman Hawkins have both declared for the NBA Draft. Both could come back, or both could be gone. That sounds uncertain, at minimum.
If TSJ and Hawkins return to Champaign in the fall, the recent additons solidfy depth, rather than provide scoring. If this dynamic duo returns for one more year, Illinois can certainly challenge Michigan State and Purdue for the top spot in the conference.
If neither make it back for a return, Illinois will be fighting for a mid-card spot once again next year.
Both players profile for the second round, so the decision to stay or go largely comes down to dollars and cents. The NIL world is complicated.
One thing is certain about the Illinois off season: there is no certainty anywhere.
Which of these Illini will be back for the 2023-24 season?
This poll is closed
Terrence Shannon, Jr.
I feel like I have not emphatically highlighted the unbelievable contribution that Underwood continuously makes to Coaches vs. Cancer, nationally and locally.
With cancer touching my personal life to a disproportionate degree, it fills me with pride and compassion to see the head coach of my favorite team dedicating his life’s work outside of winning games to such a worthy and noble cause.
It sounds like he was able to generate “literally a lot of money” during the event. Keep up the great work, Coach Underwood!
This is Illinois basketball.