It’s been 233 days.
233 days since No. 1 seed Illinois lost to Loyola-Chicago in the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight, Illinois basketball will hit the hardwood for the first time since that loss put a sour ending to a magical season for the program. It was the best season the Illini had since the Final Four run in 2005.
Illinois hosts Jackson State (Nov. 9) and Arkansas State (Nov. 12) before traveling to Milwaukee to square off against Marquette next week (Nov. 15). For those games, the Illini will be without Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Kofi Cockburn due to a NIL suspension.
Brad Underwood has already listed Coleman Hawkins as the probable starter in place of Cockburn.
Illinois enters the season ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, behind only Michigan and Purdue among Big Ten schools. Like last season, the Illini have lofty expectations and big plans on their own.
Along with star power in Cockburn and Andre Curbelo, fifth-year seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams comprise the veteran leadership that will keep this team together through all the ups and downs of the season. Curbelo, a Preseason All-Big Ten Team and Bob Cousy Award watch list member, hopes to build off his strong freshman season that resulted in Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors.
Who Else is in Champaign?
Newcomers Brandin Podziemski, Omar Payne, Luke Goode, Alfonso Plummer, RJ Melendez, and Austin Hutcherson will all look to fill an “x-factor” role for Illinois come March.
Payne, a junior transfer from Florida, was once a Top 50 recruit in the class of 2019, ranked No. 44 by ESPN and No. 45 by 247Sports Composite.
Goode, a freshman from Indiana, was a four-star recruit ranked No. 82 by ESPN, No. 100 by 247Sports Composite, and No. 110 by Rivals. At Homestead High School, Goode averaged 19.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.2 steals while shooting 40.4% from three-point range as a senior.
I recently wrote about another freshman in Podziemski, who could be Illinois’ x-factor come March because of his three-point shooting prowess.
Plummer returns for his fifth season playing hoops thanks to the COVID-19 additional year of competition opportunity. He started at the JUCO level and played his way into a role at Utah. Now, he hopes to end his collegiate career with a national championship at Illinois. Plummer started 17 of 25 games for Utah and ranked second in scoring, averaging 13.6 points last season.
Like Curbelo, Melendez is a Puerto Rico native and a four-star recruit. Melendez was ranked No. 56 by ESPN, No. 93 by 247Sports Composite, and No. 117 by Rivals. His role this season will be dependent on how Underwood chooses to deploy members of the bench, but it will be fun to watch him develop.
Hutcherson, a graduate student who sat out last season due to a back injury, actually transferred to Illinois in 2019. He will bring the Illini more experience off the bench, and after sitting out two seasons, he has a chip on his shoulder to impact a deep Illini roster.
How Far Can This Team Go?
KenPom had Illinois ranked No. 4 in its preseason rankings, which is important compared to last season. The ranking system had Illinois at No. 18 entering the 2020-21 season. Many believe this Illini team will be better than last season, despite losing Ayo Dosunmu and Adam Miller.
A lot of that hype will depend on performance from Cockburn and Curbelo, but this team is built on strength in numbers. With Dosunmu up north playing for the Bulls, and playing well mind you, this frees up more shots for Trent Frazier. Throughout the senior’s career, we’ve seen a drop in points per game. But he also wasn’t the first option, like he was when he led all Big Ten freshmen in scoring (12.5 points per game), assists (3.1 assists per game), steals (1.7 steals per game), and three-pointers (1.9 per game) in the 2017-18 season.
With Curbelo operating the offense, he will look to Frazier more now, and Cockburn’s presence inside should free up plenty of open opportunities. Frazier ranks No. 19 on the Illinois career scoring list with 1,434 points and fourth on the Illini all-time converted three-pointers list with 247.
Da’Monte Williams provides more three-point shooting on the wing. His percentage has risen each season he’s been in Champaign. The senior shot 51.5 percent from three last season and led the nation in three-point percentage among players with at least two attempts per game.
Adding the newcomers’ potential to the mix has Illinois fans thinking the sky is the limit for this program. With a sour ending to last season still fresh in the veterans’ memory, it only adds motivation heading into the 2021-22 campaign.
Breaking Down the Big Ten
The Big Ten looks to be another competitive gauntlet to play in again this season. Illinois, Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, and Maryland all enter the 2021 campaign with high expectations in the AP poll.
Illinois native EJ Liddell returns for the Buckeyes, who hope to avenge an early NCAA Tournament exit.
Hunter Dickinson and the Wolverines return several members of the same roster that went deep into March last season.
Many believe Purdue has its best team in the Matt Painter era.
Maryland got better as the 2020-21 season progressed after losing key pieces from the previous season, reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
And beyond the ranked teams, “second-tier programs” are always tough. There aren’t many “easy games” in this league.
Winning the Big Ten regular-season title outright will prove to be a difficult task for the Illini.
Control Your Destiny
Despite how challenging the conference season might be, the Illini have just as good a chance as any team in the Big Ten. Underwood and company went through a rollercoaster offseason, losing Miller to LSU, losing assistant coaches to Kentucky, and not knowing the status of Cockburn’s return to Champaign.
Now that it’s finally game day, the Illini can look forward to what is to come. It should be another memorable season for the program as they trot out a team that should be in the conversation to make an Elite Eight appearance next March.
College basketball is one of the more unpredictable sports in the nation, but the best teams almost always come out on top. Gonzaga and Baylor proved that all last season, ranking No. 1 and 2 all year and closing the season out in the national championship.
Illinois has every chance to make that dream a reality starting tonight.
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