2022-23 ITH Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini
With the start of college basketball season on the horizon, we’ll look at the conference at large and Indiana’s roster over the next month.
Today, our team previews conclude with Illinois.
Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Adam Miller, Alfonso Plummer, Da’Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison and Andre Curbelo have all moved on from the Illini basketball program the last two seasons. And just this offseason, the Fighting Illini had 10 players in total depart. And yet, they still find themselves in the mix for another Big Ten title this season after being a co-champ in 2021-22. While all the major preseason publications picked Indiana as the Big Ten favorite, Illinois has landed firmly in the contending second tier along with Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State.
Illinois has a chance at back-to-back conference titles this year thanks to some savvy roster maneuvering in the offseason. Brad Underwood worked the transfer portal to score Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja from Baylor along with Terrence Shannon from Texas Tech. 247 Sports ranked Mayer as the 14th-best transfer available with Shannon coming in at No. 22. Dainja, a big, ranked 80th.
Mayer has a ton of experience, as he’s now a fifth-year senior. He started every game a season ago for a Baylor team that lost in overtime of the second round of the NCAA tournament to eventual runner-up North Carolina. He averaged 9.8 points per game. At 6-9, he’s a threat from deep (career 34.5 percent) but should also help bolster Illinois’ interior defense with Cockburn departed. Mayer’s block percentage of 3.9 percent last season was 251st in the country and he also had a steal percentage of 3.2, which ranked 142nd. Additionally, Mayer made few mistakes with the ball in his hands (11.7 turnover percentage) a season ago.
Shannon entered the NBA Draft in 2021 after his sophomore season at Texas Tech, but opted to return for his junior season. He did have a bit of a down season last year scoring-wise after coming back, but the wing’s athleticism and skillset still has NBA franchises on notice. He’s currently projected as a fringe first-round pick, ranking 32nd on NBAdraft.net. He shot a strong 38.4 percent from 3-point range last year and will add some playmaking and dynamism on the wing to a team that lost Frazier, Plummer, Grandison and Curbelo this offseason.
Illinois also adds another potential high-impact newcomer this season: freshman point guard Skyy Clark. Clark originally committed to Kentucky, but after de-committing in March, he signed with Illinois in April. The five-star prospect and former teammate of Jalen Hood-Schifino at Montverde Academy, Clark can really fill it up. He’s a strong shooter with good form and sports a bigger frame for a player his size (6-foot-3). Clark did suffer an ACL tear in the spring of 2021 and didn’t return to the court until January this past season, so he enters the college game still in a bit of recovery mode.
Clark isn’t the only freshman that could contribute right away for the Illini this season. Per 247 Sports, Underwood brought in the 10th-best recruiting class in the nation. Beyond Clark, the four-man class also features Ty Rodgers (No. 53), Jayden Epps (No. 72) and Sencire Harris (No. 109).
In terms of returners, Coleman Hawkins is in line for more contributions this season. The 6-foot-10 junior has proven to be a strong defender, but he’s yet to break out in terms of scoring. However, Indiana fans may remember the season-high 18 points he threw against the Hoosiers in the Big Ten tournament last season, a game in which he shot 4-of-7 from deep. RJ Melendez and Luke Goode also return for sophomore seasons and will be competing for more playing time.
Bottom Line: On paper, the Illini have plenty of talent on their roster to be a serious contender for the league crown — especially in a down year for the conference. But the question remains: Will the large number of newcomers, both old and young, be able to find the chemistry necessary to make it work? After a shaky start to his tenure, Underwood has been one of the Big Ten’s best coaches, especially in terms of adapting to his roster’s strengths and weaknesses. How quickly he gets this group to mesh may tell the story of the Illini’s season.
Quotable: “I’ve got a lot of different options. I don’t know what those are yet. I think until we play some of that out, until we get to scrimmages and exhibition games, figure that out. I love our personnel. I think we’re as talented as we have been. It just looks different. We’ve got positionless size. I think that’s one of the things that I enjoy. It’s about taking advantage of mismatches. We’ve got guys who can break you down off the dribble. I think we can be a very good shooting team. We’ll have to figure all that out. Instead of just lining up and throwing the ball to Kofi, there will have to be some different options.” — Underwood at Tuesday’s Big Ten media day
(Photo credit: Illinois Athletics)