2019-2020 ITH Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini
With the start of college basketball season on the horizon, we’ll be taking a long look at the conference at large as well as Indiana’s roster over the next month. Today, our Big Ten team previews continue with a look at Illinois.
(Previously: Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Northwestern Wildcats, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Ohio State Buckeyes)
In terms of preseason projections, the Illini enter the 2019-2020 Big Ten campaign as perhaps the most polarizing team in the league. Bart Torvik’s T-Rank places them at 15th in the country to start the season with Athlon slotting them in at fifth in the conference. Some have wondered how this is warranted, given the team finished just 12-21 last year.
Yet, there are clear reasons the Illini may take a leap this season. Start here: After a strong freshman season, Ayo Dosunmu decided against even entering his name into the NBA draft and testing the waters. Dosunmu led the team in scoring (13.8) and assists (3.3) last season and another strong year might make him a first round pick. He’s joined in the backcourt by junior Trent Frazier, who shot 40.3 percent from distance a season ago and wasn’t far behind in the scoring department (13.7). The duo figures to be one of the better backcourts in the league. Frazier will be backed up again by senior Andres Feliz.
As a freshman last season, big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili showed some strong posts skills over both shoulders and proved a tough cover when he had it going. He was the team’s third leading scorer (12.5) on 54.2 percent shooting from the field and scored a season high 35 points on 14-of-18 shooting against Rutgers on Feb. 9. Brad Underwood may slide Bezhanishvili to the four this season at times to be paired up front with freshman Kofi Cockburn, a 4-star, 6-foot-10 center from Oak Hill Academy. Cockburn comes with a college-ready body that’ll be a tough matchup and has an ability to block shots, which should help an Illini defense that finished 268th in block percentage last year.
Da’Monte Williams returns for his junior season and may round out the Illini’s starting lineup. While not much of a scorer, he can help fill in the gaps. Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin get a chance to improve and contribute more consistently with now a full year under their belt in Underwood’s system. Senior Kipper Nichols and freshman Bernard Kouma will provide depth up front. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk is working back from a July lower leg injury, so he may be slow to get up to speed.
Like Northwestern, the Illini also played a four-game stint in Italy in August, giving them some game opportunity before the season starts. They went 3-1 on the trip playing four games in five days, falling to Netherlands National B Team in their final matchup.
Bottom Line: Between Dosunmu, Frazier, Bezhanishvili and Cockburn, the Illini have a solid core to work with this season. But for the team to live up to some of their preseason expectations — and perhaps make the NCAA Tournament again for the first time since 2013 — its defense needs to improve.
Underwood likes to play a pressure style, but last season it went through some growing pains, as the Illinois finished out of top 100 (108th) in adjusted defensive efficiency just as it did in his first season (129th). The Illini were a foul prone unit, as they sported one of the worst defensive free throw rates in the country (42.4, 338th) last season, while allowing teams to shoot 53.6 percent on 2-pointers, also among the worst marks in the country (308th). If Bezhanishvili, who fouled out 10 times last season, is able to defend better without fouling and Cockburn’s shot-blocking translates to the next level, it figures to make it harder for opponents to score on 2-pointers.
Perhaps in year three of the Underwood era, the defense will start to show more strides. But time will tell.
Quotable: “I love where our culture’s at … we’re no longer coaching effort. That’s expected. It’s happening every single day. Now we’re talking about x’s and o’s and doing the things to refine what we’re doing. ” — Underwood before the team’s trip to Italy in August