As Illinois left the United Center court on March 14 following a season-ending loss to Iowa, coach Brad Underwood immediately started looking ahead.
“As soon as the final horn sounded,” Underwood says. “This team needed an offseason to lift weights and get stronger and become veterans.”
The downtime gave the players a chance to continue to build their relationships. Familiarity breeds success.
While freshman Kofi Cockburn will play a major role, the bulk of the starts will go to players who know their way around the Big Ten. The four leading scorers and eight of the top nine return for the Illini.
“Even though we are an extremely young team still, now we have experience and we have productivity back,” Underwood says. “That’s encouraging. We’re past the unsure stage of what this thing is all about.”
Guard Ayo Dosunmu and 6'9" forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili started 32 and 33 games, respectively, as rookies. They and junior guard Trent Frazier will be the leaders.
Illinois Basketball At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Brad Underwood
2018-19 RECORD (BIG TEN): 12-21 (7-13)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: None
G Aaron Jordan (8.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Bezhanishvili thrilled Illini fans with his play on the court and his personality off it. He set the school’s single-game freshman scoring record with 35 points against Rutgers. “You’re talking about one of the great low-post scorers in college basketball,” Underwood says.
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Look for Bezhanishvili to move more away from the block. The coaches are counting on his rebound totals (5.2 rpg) to climb. His passing is also a strength.
Bezhanishvili figures to get plenty of frontcourt help from Cockburn, a 7-footer who will provide a scoring and defensive presence close to the basket. He will also take a share of the rebounding load. “His physical gifts are unique,” Underwood says.
Forward Kipper Nichols hopes for a bounce-back season after struggling as a junior.
Dosunmu, the team’s top scorer as a freshman (13.8 ppg), considered leaving early for the NBA. Underwood didn’t do any lobbying. He helped Dosunmu gather information. Then he got out of the way.
“There’s no doubt it’s a great benefit for our team and our university when you get a young man that is that smart, that talented and has that much pride. It’s pretty special,” Underwood says. “He’s got a maturity about him that is beyond his years. He’s a very selfless kid. He’s a great listener.”
Frazier returns for his junior season. He led the Illini with 80 3-pointers. “I think we’ll see a guy who is a big shot maker,” Underwood says. “We’ll see a guy who continues to develop defensively and is one of the outstanding scorers in college basketball.”
Andres Feliz averaged 8.3 points, mostly off the bench, in his first year out of junior college and had a strong second half of the season. Sophomore guards Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones have shown flashes of brilliance. The coaches want to see more consistency and confidence from them.
Junior Da’Monte Williams “does everything right,” Underwood says. The goal is to put Williams in better position to help on offense.
Underwood welcomes back the most experienced, talented team of his three-year tenure. Expectations are high in Champaign-Urbana, where the locals are talking about a return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2013 and about competing for a Big Ten title.
Some coaches might say, “Whoa, pump the brakes.” Not Underwood.
“There’s no uneasiness on my part,” he says. “I’ve been where we’ve won championships and competed for titles. It’s what we came here to do … win the Big Ten. It is nice to have a certain level of expectation I’ve told our guys this program should have that. [But] we still haven’t done anything. There’s no one in that locker room that’s won.”
Postseason Prediction: Round of 32
Big Ten Prediction: 5th