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Illinois Basketball's Biggest Challenges in 2020? Health and Living Up to the Hype

Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and living up to high expectations will be paramount for Illini basketball in 2020-21.
Illinois Basketball

Photo: IlliniMBB/Twitter

College basketball is back this week and Illinois Fighting Illini fans have been waiting patiently for this moment since mid-March.

262 days.

It's been 262 days since the Fighting Illini closed out the 2019-20 campaign with a home victory against Naismith Men's National Player of the Year finalist Luka Garza and Iowa.

Illinois finished last season by winning five of their final six games. The Illini were primed for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament — an event they had not qualified for since 2013 — after closing the regular season 21-10 with a 13-7 record in the Big Ten. It was far and away their best season since 2013.

As we know, the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 and unfortunately we'll never know what Illinois could have done in March.

Illinois is Back

There's no doubt about it, Illinois has not seen the hype they've received heading into a season since 2004-05 when they advanced as far as the National Championship game against North Carolina.

That team opened the year No. 5 in The Associated Press Preseason poll. This season, Illinois opens at No. 8 in the AP poll. It was the first time they entered the poll in the top ten since the Final Four run in March of 2005.

One reason the hype surrounds the Illini is that they return most of their core players from last season, including stars guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn. Veteran leader Trent Frazier returns for his senior season as well.

Frazier is one of the few recruits left from the John Groce era and has yet to experience college basketball in March.

New Faces

Illinois lost key bench piece, Andres Feliz, due to graduation and Alan Griffin transferred to Syracuse.

However, recruiting is one of the things head coach Brad Underwood has been able to do consistently since taking over the helm of the program. Underwood brought in four-star recruit Adam Miller out of Morgan Park, the same school Dosunmu attended.

College Basketball analyst Brian Snow projects Miller as a future NBA player who is best when he's off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations.

Underwood also landed another guard in top-50 prospect Andre Curbelo out of Long Island Lutheran in New York. Curbelo was ranked No. 44 in the nationwide prospect rankings by ESPN and 247 Sports, including No. 8 on the list of point guards.

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Director of Basketball Scouting Jerry Meyer says the 6-foot guard has an above average basketball IQ and feel for the game as a playmaking distributor and projects as a strong Power 5 starter at the collegiate level.

Miller and Curbelo will be relied upon to replace the production the Fighting Illini will miss from Feliz and Griffin.

In the middle, the Illini have depth with the addition of three-star recruit Coleman Hawkins out of Sacramento, California.

At 6-foot-10, Hawkins' length along with three-star 7-foot freshman center Brandon Lieb, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and Cockburn provide Underwood a way to rest his big men.

Last season, Illinois would occasionally struggle on the interior offensively and defensively when Cockburn got into foul trouble. The added depth negates those problems this season.

Depth and Health Will be Key

As we've seen in other sports in 2020, teams with depth succeed. Depth will be key for Illinois due to possible COVID-19 outbreaks.

Wright State, a school invited to Illinois' multi-team event scheduled at the State Farm Center this week, withdrew due to a player testing positive.

However the Big Ten chooses to handle these situations, Illinois will be in good hands if a player has to miss a handful of games. Let's hope the players and coaching staff stay healthy all season.

Ayo's Time

Ayo Dosunmu enters the season as a Naismith Player of the Year favorite. CJ Moore of The Athletic recently wrote about why Dosunmu could be the best guard in the country.

"Dosunmu looks like a pro playing with college kids on both ends of the floor. He’s too big, too fast and too powerful. The one thing holding him back from being a truly elite scorer is his catch-and-shoot jumper. He’s a much better shooter off the bounce, because his mechanics are more sound. When he catches and shoots, he releases the ball over his left eye and the motion isn’t as fluid. But that’s nitpicking. He finished last season on a tear, averaging 19.7 points per game over his final six, a stretch during which the Illini went 5-1. He probably has the highest ceiling of any guard in college this year outside of Cunningham. If he can clean up his catch-and-shoot jumper and become a respectable 3-point shooter, then there’s going to be no stopping him and he has the potential to be the national player of the year."

- CJ Moore of The Athletic on Dosunmu being the No. 1 guard in college basketball

Cockburn also makes the case after a stellar freshman season. We'll see how his interior offense develops during his sophomore year.

As for Ayo, if it weren't for the pandemic, Illini fans would likely be watching the guard play in the NBA next month. Instead, he chose to return to Champaign for one more year.

He is playing with house money at this point. NBA Scouts have more than enough film on him and that could be a bad thing for Dosunmu. We'll see what improvements he made in the offseason.

It's Go Time

It will be interesting to see how Illinois will perform early in their non-conference schedule, specifically against No. 2 Baylor and No. 9 Duke. The Fighting Illini will face off against both teams in back-to-back fashion in early December.

The Big Ten season will be tough no matter who they play. Last season, Illinois played a lot of close contests in the Big Ten portion of their schedule. Of the 20 Big Ten games, 15 of them were decided by ten points or fewer.

The preseason AP poll features seven schools from the Big Ten including Illinois. By season's end, the conference might be the best league in college basketball.

Nonetheless, this is the most exciting season for the orange and blue in over a decade. Let's try to enjoy it even if we can't attend.