Illinois reached new heights last year despite being knocked out by Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They finished the year 24-7, won the Big Ten Tournament and earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2013).
This years team loses a few pieces from last year, but is still a team that should be competing for a Big Ten Title and a force come March Madness.
Key Losses: Ayo Dosunmu, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Adam Miller
Ayo Dosunmu left for the NBA Draft and is now a Chicago Bull. Giorgi Bezhanishvili opted to test pro waters and is currently in the NBA G League with Grand Rapids. Adam Miller entered the transfer portal and ends up an LSU Tiger.
Key Additions: Alfonso Plummer (Utah), Omar Payne (Florida), Austin Hutcherson (DII), Ramses Melendez, Luke Goode, Brandin Podziemski
Alfonso Plummer transfers in from Utah. He’s regarded as a scorer and pure shooter; he was a career 40% three-point shooter at Utah and can bring instant offense. Omar Payne has gotten a lot of praise from fellow teammates in practices so far. He’s a big body who plays hard and is a gifted shot blocker. He’s been able to give Kofi Coburn a good fight down low in practices thus far. His offense is much more than catch and dunk, but that’s fine. He’ll backup Coburn this year and ensure the defense doesn’t drop off when Coburn’s is on the bench. Hutcherson is a deadly shooter that shot 39.2% at his previous DII stop.
The Illini bring in three Freshmen in Melendez, Goode and Podziemski. Melendez was the #56 ranked recruit by ESPN, He’s a catch and shoot guy with good length right now and could use a few years to develop. Luke Goode is another ESPN Top 100 recruit who could see some action this year because of his beautiful shot and good size at 6’7. Podziemski is a 6’5 athletic guard who can create off the dribble a bit and is a plus defender.
Much of the offense will run through the massive frame of Kofi Coburn. His decision to comeback to Illinois was huge! He’s an elite post presence who led the Big Ten in field goal percentage , 7th in block-rate and finished in the top five in both offensive and defensive rebounding. He finished the season as a second-team All-American and I can’t wait to watch him wreak havoc in the Big Ten for another season! Should be noted he will miss the first three games due to an NCAA suspension (he sold merchandise in June while thinking about the NBA Draft, NIL became effective in July).
Coleman Hawkins is a name that’s gotten a lot of talk this offseason as he heads into his second year. At 6’10, Hawkins can definitely be force defensively, but the real game changing aspect to Hawkins is on offense. He can step out and hit the three which will really create problems for opponents and create space for the Illini offense.
I mentioned Omar Payne as a new addition who should be a serviceable backup for Coburn and fill out the frontcourt rotation.
Andre Curbelo replaces Dosunmu at point guard and the transition should be pretty easy. Curbelo was a member of the Big Ten All-Freshman team and the Big Ten 6th man of the year last year. He led the Big Ten in assist rate last year and an extra year of experience should only help his turnovers. He’ll have pick -and-roll options with Coburn, pick-and-pop with Hawkins and shooters everywhere with Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison, Da’Monte Williams and Alfonso Plummer. Curbelo and company could create some problems for defenses this year
Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams return for one more year. Two team leaders who do the dirty work, lock down on defense and can shoot the three. These are the heart of the Illini. By the way, Williams did lead the entire country in 3-point percentage last year at 54.7%!
Jacob Grandison will take up a bigger role this year with Adam Miller gone. The former Holy Cross transfer has shown he’s a shooting threat, but I think there’s more there offensively. Could be a breakout candidate.
Alfonso Plummer will be a microwave off the bench, with the ability to heat it up as soon as he enters the game. A really underrated pickup in the transfer portal this offseason.
Austin Hutcherson is another option for shooting and we could see minutes from some of the freshmen, but I wouldn’t expect major minutes from them unless injuries hit Illinois.
A quick look at the Illinois depth chart this season.
Defensively, the Coburn and Payne with protect the rim, but the loss of Dosunmu and Miller will affect the Illini’s perimeter defense a bit; potentially dropping them from a Top 10 defensive unit to Top 20. The offense should be one of the best in the country with multiple options even if hit by foul trouble. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t be competing for another top seed in March.
The Illini open the season at home against Jackson State at 7:30 CT on November 9th.