ILLINOIS BASKETBALL: Illini back in the spotlight as tipoff to season nears
CHAMPAIGN – It’s 2004, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and Dee, Deron and the rest of the gang were playing in the second round in Columbus, Ohio against Cincinnati, the No. 4 seed in the region.
The 4-5 game appeared to be a tossup, even if these young Illini were attempting to make the jump to the second weekend and the Sweet Sixteen in coach Bruce Weber’s first season on the job.
Illinois dominated the Bearcats in a 92-68 blowout, reached the regional semifinals against top-seeded Duke and put everyone on notice they would be back ready for more in the 2004-5 season.
You know how that one ended up.
It’s 16 years later, but folks keeping an eye on the Illini wonder if the cycle is about to be repeated.
After stumbling through the first two months of last season, the Illini rebounded and played their way into the final week of the regular season with a chance at the school’s first Big Ten championship since, well, those guys won it in 2005. With tough defense, an assassin who finishes games with clutch shots, depth and a monster in the middle, Illinois looked like a team ready to make a run last March.
Then the world changed, putting everything on hold. But the virus didn’t do anything to flatten the hype that swept across the state, and Illinois enters the season with plans on making a charge at the Big Ten title and the Final Four, if not more.
Already rated at No. 8 in the Associated Press preseason top 25, Illinois is back in the spotlight. It’s all here, just like the old days. Hype. Ratings. Players on watch lists. Big expectations.
Ain’t it fun again.
The national media and reporters covering the Big Ten haven’t overlooked the Illini.
According to The Athletic, the Illini are the Big Ten favorites.
CBS Sports also agreed
“There’s a lot to like about the Illini,’’ the network website said.
The return of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn from NBA Draft consideration was big news in late summer. The senior season for Trent Frazier is also a plus, because his defense and ballhandling are critical to the position-less system run by coach Brad Underwood, and the coaches think his shooting will bounce back when the Illini take some of those other duties off his plate.
The addition of Adam Miller, the Peoria native who played out his prep career in Chicago, is also a key bonus, even if guard Andre Curbelo might be under the radar to some national media.
“By and large, the bones of a team that won 21 games and finished with five wins in the last six games returns in 2020, establishing them as our preseason pick to win the league,’’ CBS Sports said. “Illinois might not have the star power to match Iowa and Luke Garza, but its roster is deep, experienced and talented.’’
Let’s take it another step further.
Andy Katz, the former ESPN personality who works for BTN and as a blogger for the NCAA, has been on the Illini bandwagon since late last season. He didn’t jump off this summer, and when talking about Final Four teams, Katz threw the Illini into the Final Four mix behind Gonzaga, Villanova and Baylor.
“Those three schools are the most experienced,’’ Katz said. “In an unprecedented season, experience will matter.’’
(Let’s not forget about that date with Baylor in early December.)
With Dosunmu and Cockburn returning, plus that tough defense, “they’re going to be one of the favorites in the Big Ten,’’ Katz said.
Otherwise, Illinois is a trendy pick for the Final Four. Three of the five analysts with CBSSports.com listed the Illini in their Final Four predictions.
As for Iowa’s Luke Garza as a national player of the year candidate, “it’s his to lose,’’ Katz said, but he also offered up some other possibilities.
“Could it be Ayo Dosunmu in (Garza’s) own league at Illinois?’’ Katz said.
Katz isn’t the only guy with his eyes on Dosunmu, who was already rated as a top 12 candidate for next year’s NBA Draft.
Dosunmu has always been considered the program changer, the kid who stayed home to lift the Illini, ever since his commitment on Michigan Avenue in Chicago as a prep senior. He’s the closest thing to the face of college basketball as anything in this orange and blue since Dee.
Dosunmu’s game-winning baskets and powerful downhill drives to the basket were a powerful combo last season, as the Illini came to life in Big Ten play. Evidently, he made an impression on national media.
A unanimous preseason all-Big Ten pick, Dosunmu was a preseason All-America by the Associated Press and CBS Sports. He was listed at most intriguing player nationally by The Athletic’s Brian Hamilton, the No. 2 returning player by Katz and the No. 3 player overall by CBS’ Matt Norlander.
He’s not the only one.
Cockburn was named the No. 4 big by The Athletic, the No. 10 returning player by Katz and the No. 17 overall by CBS’ Norlander. Cockburn was a preseason all-Big Ten selection.
In the Orange and Blue podcast posted this week, analyst Brad Sturdy provided interesting discussion on Cockburn’s upside and how he might have more improvement from last season than Garza, whose development might have topped out.
All of the hype is a new challenge for the Illini, who didn’t have this kind of problem starting last season after coming off a school-record 21 losses to end the 2018-19 season. This is a new challenge for coach Brad Underwood, who likes to call them the Everyday Guys.
That’s a good thing, because there won’t be any nights off. The Illini will get the best shot from every team on the schedule.
“One of the things we talk about a lot is the next step of growth,’’ Underwood said. “We’ve shown we can compete in the Big Ten. We’ve done it. We (entered) the last week playing for a conference title. We won on the road. We’ve done those things. Now you have to go from the hunter to the hunted and understand there’s a bull’s eye on our back. You have to handle that.’’
All eyes are on the Illini this winter, just like the old days.