Where is Illinois Headed?
This excellent piece by Brian Hamilton in The Athletic about the current state of Illinois Basketball highlights the good, the not-so-good, and the ugly. I particularly liked this passage:
…But here we have a Big Ten program in a talent-rich and basketball-loving state with a coach who won 80 percent of his games before he got to town two years ago. As a result, it’s fair to say one of college basketball’s running curiosities is Illinois either being a few particular successes away from greatness or elite-ness, or being bound to more regularly hit its head on the canopy of good enough, and whether everyone inside and outside the program would be good enough with that.
It’s also fair to presume the next 12 months will offer a hint about that. Illinois had four total wins and zero Big Ten victories on Jan. 10, and then went 7-8 to end the regular season. An epiphany, it is not. But it is better than the slog that preceded it, especially since the stretch featured the continued growth of freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, along with two victories over ranked teams. It also featured that Senior Night during which Indiana scissored through a listless defense for 21 layups, after what Underwood says were two of the best practices his team has had all year. A second-half collapse in a double-digit loss at Penn State followed three days later. So the last two months of the regular season essentially demonstrate both Illinois’ good intentions and what could be, as well as the maddening inconsistencies that undermine the whole deal.
The (presumably) available talent and a third full offseason of program-building, which will include an overseas trip to Italy, and a far less murderous schedule should create a pivot point by next fall. The direction of the pivot remains TBD.
The pivot point likely will be predicated on not seeing a mass exodus of transfers like last season. Because of his medical condition, I expect Anthony Higgs will transfer out. Samba Kane apparently has some academic issues, but I hope he stays and takes an academic redshirt. Kipper Nichols might be a player a lot of fans wouldn’t mind seeing transfer, but I don’t think he can do it academically because of the wonky way he transferred in.
I really hope Ayo Dosunmu does not leave the program for the green pastures of the NBA. I expect he will go to the combine and get told by plenty of coaches and scouts that he needs to get stronger, faster, add consistency to his handle and three point shot, and see where his stock falls after his sophomore season at Illinois. Hopefully a season where he helps lead the Fighting Illini back to the NCAA Tournament.