- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Andres Feliz, Kipper Nichols, Alan Griffin, Da’Monte Williams, Tevian Jones
Key Losses: Aaron Jordan, Adonis De La Rosa
Key Newcomers: Kofi Cockburn
Outlook: Illinois was a team of inconsistency last season, but from a metrics standpoint was far better than its 12-21 (7-13) record suggested. A disappointing 4-12 (0-5) start to the 2018-19 campaign had many Illini faithful questioning the recent hiring of Brad Underwood, a coach that had enjoyed nothing but success prior to arriving in Champaign. Then on January 16th, a switch flipped. The Illini rattled off six wins in nine games, knocking off Minnesota, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Michigan State at home, Maryland on a neutral floor, and Ohio State on the road. It finally appeared Illinois had found its groove, playing up to its talent level. Despite finishing the year much like it started, Underwood’s squad was light years away from its 2018 non-conference woes. Youth and lack of size ultimately held back a roster chock full of athleticism and talent. 2019-20 promises to bring even more improvement with stud freshmen making that juicy leap to sophomore year and a solid core of upperclassmen leading the way.
Over the past three seasons, Underwood has acknowledged the fact that his high-pressure defensive system from Stephen F. Austin is less effective in the Power 6 with the uptick in athletes and skill at the guard position. Though he’s dialed back the all-out denials, his Illini are capable of wreaking havoc on the defensive end with a stable of athletes asserting high ball pressure and jumping passing lanes. The Illini ranked 24th in the country (1st in the Big Ten) in turnover rate last season thanks to the efforts of its three-headed backcourt monster Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu, and Andres Feliz. The trio combined to average 3.66 steals per game, ranking 7th, 9th, and 22nd, respectively in the Big Ten. While the perimeter pressure befuddled many an opponent, Illinois was a sieve inside the arc and in the paint. The Illini were consistently destroyed on the defensive glass, ranking 307th in the country in DR% (13th in the Big Ten) and allowed opponents to shoot 64.5% near the rim (308th nationally). Freshman center Giorgi Bezhanishvili was objectively excellent on the offensive end last season, but his post defense and glass cleaning left much to be desired. If Illinois is to be an NCAA Tournament team in 2019-20, it must protect the paint.
Hope in this matter lies in the signing of Kofi Cockburn, a top 50 recruit and monolith at 7’0” 290 lbs. Cockburn is a monster presence on the block with his 7’2” wingspan. He’s physically imposing, aggressive, and a surefire boost to Illinois’s rebounding and post defense situation. Offensively he still lacks polish, limited to mostly “catch and dunk”, but there’s plenty of room for growth under the tutelage of Underwood. It remains to be seen if he’ll be able to share the floor with Bezhanishvili, a seemingly ideal solution to the Illini’s defensive struggles. Cockburn would own the block assignments while Bezhanishvili, a sneaky mobile big, could keep up with 4’s. Underwood played the departed Adonis De La Rosa, a similarly-sized big man as Cockburn, alongside Bezhanishvili sparingly but the results were overwhelmingly positive. In 154 defensive possessions, Illinois allowed just 0.86 PPP when the pair shared the floor compared to 1.01 PPP when featuring other combos up front.
It remains to be seen if Bezhanishvili will improve his defense in 2019-20, but he will no doubt be a focal point of the Illinois offense. Arguably one of the biggest freshman surprises in the country last season, the unranked recruit led the Illini in usage during his rookie season. His skill and touch served him well on the block, as he scored on post-ups at a very high rate, and his ability to win position battles aided his above average offensive rebounding rates. In the clip below, Bezhanishvili wins position against Iowa’s Luke Garza and deftly finishes a tough layup on the other side of the cup:
The obvious next step for the Georgian phenom is to hone his outside shot, becoming a threat at the top of the key when Underwood inverts his bigs. He converted just 5/30 of his three-point attempts last season, but the stroke is there for potential improvement.
Supporting Bezhanishvili will be one of the best backcourts in the country. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu surprised everyone when he decided to not even test the NBA Draft waters, giving the Illini a bona fide playmaker leading its offense. While not incredibly explosive near the rim, Dosunmu is a good athlete and one of the quicker guards you’ll see in college basketball in the open floor. Here’s a little taste of his elite speed:
The Honorable Mention All-Big Ten and All-Freshman Team member led the Illini in assist rate last season, aiding his backcourt mate Trent Frazier in ball handling and table setting duties. Dosunmu will look to improve his shooting this season, particularly from the mid-range area where he converted just 27.3% of his shots. His mechanics are a little funky, but he managed to shoot a respectable 35.2% from deep in 2018-19, juxtaposed to his mid-range percentage and sub-70% free throw clip. His true value lies in his ability to blow by his defender on the perimeter and get to the rack where he can draw help defenders or finish near the rim. Expect a giant year from Dosunmu in 2019-20.
Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz return to support Dosunmu after turning in solid 2018-19 campaigns. Frazier appeared to enjoy the opportunity to play more off the ball, improving his three-point percentage from 35.5% in 2017-18 to 40.6% last season. Like Dosunmu, Frazier struggled from the mid-range, and unlike Dosunmu was a poor finisher near the rim. In total, Frazier converted just 41.7% of his 2P FGA last season. Feliz serves as yet another capable ball handler, scorer, and defensive menace. He’ll continue to provide a spark off the pine as the Illini’s sixth man and will be a source of leadership heading into his senior year.
The aforementioned guard tandem fuels Illinois’s uptempo transition-focused attack, one that runs surprisingly more off opponent scores and defensive rebounds than off turnovers:
When not running in transition, Frazier and Dosunmu work off ball screens and feed Bezhanishvili on the block.
Two potential X-factors will play crucial roles in the Illini’s fate this season: senior forward Kipper Nichols and sophomore wing Tevian Jones. Nichols is one of those players that’s been “headed for a breakout” for the past ten years. Last season, the 6’6” Cleveland native took a considerable step back, as his shooting percentages fell off a cliff. Nichols’ three-point percentage tanked from 37.8% the year before to just 21.9% and his FT% went from 85.9% to 57.9%. Whether it was the “yips” or simply playing out of position as Underwood’s de facto 4-man, Nichols was a near non-factor for the Illini down the stretch last year. He’ll need to rediscover his confidence this season.
Jones has a “POTENTIAL BREAKOUT” neon sign plastered above him at all times. The former fringe top 100 recruit showed flashes of his elite potential last season, but was ultimately inconsistent. He’s theoretically one of the best shooters and most athletic players on the roster and can take Illinois from bubble team to Big Ten contender.
Alan Griffin, a shooter off the pine, and Da’Monte Williams, a glue guy who will start a fair share of ball games, round out Underwood’s core rotation. 3-star big man Bernard Kouma is still a year or two away from contributing, but late signee Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, a versatile Belgian power forward who can shoot and pass at a high level, could see immediate minutes in the frontcourt.
Bottom Line: Similar to last season, this Illini team has a sky-high ceiling, but a decidedly much higher floor. Few teams in the Big Ten can match Illinois’s backcourt speed and athleticism, and Underwood has high-level talent at nearly every position on his roster. If everything clicks, Cockburn proves to be a force on the glass and in the interior, and Nichols and Jones live up to their billing, this team could sit in the AP Top 25 poll all season long.