The Illini were co-Big Ten Champions last year and made another NCAA Tournament Appearance. They beat Chattanooga is a tightly contested first round game and then fell to Houston in the round of 32. But now Kofi is gone, along with nine other players from last year’s team. The Illini have reloaded through the transfer portal and recruiting and will have a new look this season.
Since this team won’t look a whole lot like last year’s, I’m not going to look much at last year’s stats.
Losses: Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, Alfonso Plummer, Jacob Grandison, Da’Monte Williams, Omar Payne, Benjamins Bosmans-Verdonk, Brandin Podziemski, Austin Hutcherson
Additions: Terrence Shannon Jr, Matthew Mayer, Dain Dainja
Terrence Shannon Jr transfers from Texas Tech. He was recruited heavily to Illinois initially before choosing Tech. He started 54 games over three years for the Red Raiders. Super competitive and a leader, Shannon can score in multiple ways.
Matthew Mayer transfers from Baylor. He was an integral part of Baylor’s national championship in 2021. And last season he ranked in the top 15 in the Big 12 for Steal% (14th), Block% (7th), and Defensive Rebound % (3rd). He has said he believes he can be the best defender in the Big Ten and he’s said his goal is to be Big Ten defensive Player of the Year. One of his biggest advantages is at 6’9, he can guard all five positions. Offensively, he shot nearly 40% from three two years ago, but it dropped to 32.4% last year. He averaged 8.1 points per game on Baylor’s national championship team and will be able to show his ability to show of the cut and dribble more at Illinois.
Dain Dainja is another Baylor transfer. Has worked a lot on being able to guard ball screens. He wants to be one of the best rebounders in college basketball. He broke his foot his first year at Baylor and then transferred to Illinois and redshirted last year. He took that time to work on his body. He has gone from 292 pounds when he got to Illinois to 260 pounds now. Dainja size along with his ability to both pass and score out of the post makes him a valuable add.
Skyy Clark: #25 ranked recruit from ESPN. Big-time scorer who comes in and will likely start at point guard immediately. He missed last year due to a torn ACL so it may take him a little bit of time.
Ty Rodgers: Brad Underwood said he led in rebounds in seven of the first eight practices. He can be an intangible guy. I look for him to be a guy who can get minutes early and fill in for some of the stuff we’ll miss with Da’Monte Williams gone. Underwood has called him a “tough, mature freshman”. He can bring some energy and really embody what Brad Underwood wants the culture to be.
Sencire Harris: 6’4, long, talented and athletic. He is only 170 pounds though so he may need to add some weight and improve his shooting before he starts getting minutes.
Jayden Epps: 6’2 combo guard that provides depth at both guard positions.
The returners include Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez and Luke Goode. Melendez and Hawkins have both had big off-seasons in the weight room. Goode is much needed shooter on this team, and he’ll be one of the leaders. Unfortunately, Goode went down with a foot injury in a closed scrimmage against Kansas and underwent surgery last Friday. It’s unknown when and if he’ll return this season. Melendez has worked a lot on his shot this summer, so if this group can shoot it well, the offense could come along well.
This year’s team is going to be much faster paced. The main reason for that is the loss of Kofi. This team wants to have a disruptive defense and look to score in the first seven seconds on offense. This team has the ability to switch everything with really long defenders at multiple positions. They can force turnover and get out and run
This can be an ELITE defensive team. Mayer, Hawkins and Melendez can all guard 1-through-5. I’m not sure there’s another team with three of those guys. In a Big Ten where a lot of teams slow thigs down, Illinois will look to speed things up.
The first weakness is getting all these new players to jell. There’s a lot of new faces so it could definitely take some time to get this group playing at their best. Other weaknesses are a lack of bigs and shooting. The Big Ten is loaded with talented Bigs (Hunter Dickinson, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Zach Edey and Cliff Omoruyi. With Kofi Cockburn, Omar Payne and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk all gone, the Illini with have to handle these bigs another way.
Key Non-Conference Games:
• Nov 7 – Opening Night – vs Eastern Illinois
• Nov 18-20 Continental Tire Main Event – Las Vegas vs UCLA and Baylor or Virginia
• Nov 29 vs Syracuse (ACC-Big Ten Challenge)
• Dec 6 at Madison Square Garden vs Texas
• Dec 22 Braggin Rights vs Missouri (in St. Louis)
Illinois’ conference schedule is balanced and should give them an opportunity to contend for another Big Ten Championship. They play a lot of the weaker teams (Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State) twice.