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Illinois’ roster is almost set. It’s time to be patient

Give the Illini time to gel.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After a few practices into the greatest season in Illinois basketball history in the fall of 2004, then-head coach Bruce Weber said a few words that will always stick with me.

“We are so far ahead of where we were last year.”

For those who don’t remember or were too young, Weber had taken over as head coach of the Illini prior to the 2003-04 season after the departure of ever-popular coach Bill Self.

Even though he had a talent roster of future NBA players Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, James Augustine and Roger Powell, Weber still needed to teach the new offense which was transitioning from the high-low of Bill Self to his motion offense.

It took the team about about half the season to get the offense down pat, but once they did they flourished. They would go on to win the Big Ten regular season championship, make it to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament, and eventually the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament were they lost to Duke. And it set the foundation for the greatest season in school history.

This is where I wonder about Brad Underwood and his constant roster turnover each season. Yes, things are different than they were 20 years ago with the one-time transfer rule, and the NIL money — and who is to say how many players from that 2005 team would have stayed at Illinois after Bill Self left if they had the freedom to do so — but by constantly turning the roster over each year like he has the past few seasons, it is getting harder and harder for the team to gel and get used to playing with each other.

This is not the NBA where you can go out and sign a bunch of free agents like the Heat did in 2010, and just let them figure it out. Colleges have limited practice time together and much fewer games.

And speaking of the 2010 Heat, it took them two years to win a NBA title. Even though the made to the Finals in 2011, it took time for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to get used to playing with each other.

2014 NBA Finals - Game One Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Look at this year’s NBA Finals, the Nuggets might not have been the most talented team, but Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and other have played together for a few years they know each other, and they know the style they like to play.

2023 Denver Nuggets Championship Parade Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NBAE via Getty Images

Everything looks good on paper for the Illini transfers of Quincy Guerrier, Justin Harmon and Marcus Domask, and there still might be a move or more to come, joining the current Illini roster. But they are going to need to time to get to know Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon Jr., Dain Dainja & Co. You can’t just roll the ball out there and expect the team to mesh over night; it takes time not only to learn the system but the other players around you.

That is is why a player like Trent Frazier was so successful and key to the Illini his last couple of years. He had been with the Illini for four to five seasons, and by the end of his college career he knew everything that Brad Underwood wanted to do and could basically run a practice by himself.

Hopefully the new transfers can gel with the current Illini, and Illini fans can have a reason to watch the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And I hope whenever the season does end next year, I don’t have to do what I've had to do the last couple of years: learn a whole new roster.