The Fighting Illini return to Champaign motivated after a canceled postseason campaign incited Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to withdraw from the NBA draft. The Illini are intent on chasing an NCAA title. Joining them in their quest for basketball immortality will be a mixture of top 50 prospects, seasoned seniors, and unexpected international gems. How good will Illinois be and is a trip to the Final Four a possibility for them?
The Rise of the Fighting Illini
Last season they led the Illini to an impressive 21-10 record. It gave them their best win percentage since 2010. They also finished fourth in the Big Ten winning 13 of 20 games against conference opponents. Illinois was a strong defensive and rebounding team, not an uncommon style for a Big Ten club. They were also known for getting to the charity stripe effectively, ranking 13th among all Division I teams.
Struggles were very apparent for Brad Underwood’s side. Perimeter shooting ranked 297th in attempts and percentage, and turnovers, a lowly 269th. The only bright spot from the outside was sophomore guard Alan Griffin. He shot over 41 percent while the team as a whole shot just over 31 percent.
The team was projected to make it to their first NCAA tournament since 2013. All of that changed once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The virus dashed fans’ hopes at watching the Illini navigate a deep run in the tourney. Dosunmu made the All-Big Ten second team and Cockburn won Big Ten Rookie of the Year. Both are small consolations in a year that could have been much more.
Dosunmu and Cockburn looked to be headed to NBA futures, but unfinished business is still ahead for the dynamic tandem. On July 31st Dosunmu released a video on his Twitter.
“My dream has been to play in the NBA, but first I need that national championship.” – Ayo Dosunmo/Twitter
Later that same day, Cockburn announced he will be withdrawing from the NBA as well to join Dosunmu, backing the orange and blue for one more season.
It wasn’t all good news over the summer. Alan Griffin, the team’s only sharpshooter transferred to Syracuse. And senior Andres Feliz, who was second in assists (2.9), rebounds (5.0), and third in points (11.0), graduated.
The subsequent lockdowns in Illinois have hindered practices and training for Illinois. More of the onus was placed upon the players to stay in shape, eat well since regular structured offseason activities were not always possible.
The Freshman recruits
The incoming freshmen looking to fill in the gaps include Puerto Rico-born Andre Curbelo and Illinois’ own Adam Miller. In just the first three games, Curbelo and Miller have had an enormous impact. In the opening contest against North Carolina A&T, Miller and his fellow Morgan Park High School Alum, Dosunmu, scored 28 points to beat the Aggies by a score of 122-60.
Miller went six of eight behind the arc, helping Illini surpass the school record of three-pointers made in a game with 17. Against Chicago State the next day, Curbelo contributed 18 points off the bench in just 20 minutes. He was a big reason why the Illini routed the Cougars 97-38.
The last time the Fighting Illini were ranked in the preseason top ten was in 2004. They went all the way to the national championship game. That team featured Deron Williams who would go on to have an incredibly successful NBA career. Will this team echo the Illini of old, or will the inexperience of this team leave them wanting more again?
The talent in Illinois is extraordinary, with more depth than any in Brad Underwood’s previous teams. Junior Giorgi Bezhanishivli, a former starter for the squad, is a versatile forward. He could add some experience to a bench that features mostly underclassmen and transfers. Underwood for his part has coached his previous schools to four straight NCAA tournament appearances for Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma.
The big unknown for this team is who will provide consistent offense. Especially when Dosunmu is on the bench or in the midst of a cold streak. Cockburn is a tremendous defender and physical presence on the inside. But he’s been completely shut down on the offensive end by some of the premier Big Ten defenders. Iowa’s Luka Garza held Cockburn to just six points in their first meeting last year.
Adam Miller could be that necessary spark. Miller averaged 21.5 points on 71% in his first two appearances. But he had a much tougher game against Ohio. It nearly cost Illinois as Miller went without a bucket on the perimeter in a tight 77-75 against the MAC opponents.
Arguably the biggest key for a successful season has to be limiting turnovers. Averaging over 12 turnovers a game, Illinois gave away too many chances. Especially for a team that prides itself on effort plays and high basketball IQ. Dosunmu needs to play within himself and trust his talented squad. His 81 turnovers were the fifth most in the Big Ten. That will have to be improved if a national title run is in the cards.
Overall Illinois has a good chance at positioning itself at the top of the Big Ten. They’re even a potential high seed going into Indy. A lot could hinge on the limited but important senior leadership. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have spent every year under Brad Underwood’s tutelage.
Both are currently in the starting rotation but have been unheralded heroes of a core ripe with potential. Keep your eyes on Champaign this Wednesday. Illinois faces another top ten opponents in the number two ranked Baylor Bears.