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Supinie: Illini ready to break out

CHAMPAIGN – It might be argued that the take off point came last season, when the Illini strung together four consecutive wins late in the Big Ten Conference season to pump some enthusiasm into a rebuild that still suffered through a school-record 21-loss campaign.

Or it could have been the afternoon when Giorgi Bezhanishvili dropped a freshman record of 35 points in the win over Rutgers, breaking the record of Deon Thomas that stood for nearly three decades.

Or it might have been the moment when Ayo Dosunmu, the flourishing freshman guard with so much potential, made the smart play by staying patient and decided to hang for another season in The Farm.

Or, as it appeared during the media session with Brad Underwood on Tuesday afternoon, this is the time when Illini basketball is ready to take off. Underwood was beaming, perhaps because he had a little color from a few days here out there on the links. It might just be that he can see around the corner from here with a team whose best player might be the hardest worker, a set of Twin Towers that will get a chance to play together during an exhibition trip to Italy in August, and the growing feeling that the Illini are ready to bust out of the malaise of the last six seasons, when this proud program sat on the sidelines during an NCAA Tournament drought that no one could have predicted when the decade began.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood instructs players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood instructs players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Let’s not talk too big just yet, but this feels like the Illini are back, and this is a taking off point for some real fun. With a group of freshmen set to be new-and-improved sophomores, another incoming wave of recruits and weight room guru Adam Fletcher, these Illini are set to breakout. Recruits are taking notice and knocking on the door. Chicago Whitney Young senior guard D.J. Steward will make a campus visit Wednesday, and 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner from St. Louis Trinity Catholic was here last week.

Underwood couldn’t stop smiling and couldn’t stop telling everyone how he’s excited. The feeling is contagious.

“We’ve had a busy month with young guys on campus visiting us,’’ Underwood said. “It’s the time of year when most people consider it a down time. It’s not been that. It’s exciting. I’m like every coach in the country. He feels great about his team and feel great about what they’re doing this time of the year. To see the improvement the guys have made since the last game has been exciting.

“This team needed an offseason. We’re trying to keep guys fresh and still trying to get a lot of work done. We’re toying with different things on both ends of the court.’’

The first building block is Dosunmu, who could have jumped to the NBA but made the calculated decision. The 2020 mock drafts show him in a sold spot, but he’s not taking anything for granted. Dosunmu has already been a workaholic during the quiet time of May and June, when all eyes were on this year’s draft.

“You’re taking about a very motivated young man,’’ Underwood said. “He didn’t go home in May. He stayed here and took an (inter-session) class. He’s been not just two or three segments of workouts. A lot of times it’s three or four (a day). He’s adopted his motto that everybody works out once. The good ones work out twice. The great ones work out more than that. He’s a guy who’s physically changed already. He’s been nothing but exceptional in this offseason. That’s exciting.’’

There Underwood goes again, getting all excited.

He’s also anxious to see the improvement of Bezhanishvili, who played the bulk of last season with an injured thumb the hurt his shooting percentage and limited his ballhandling. The biggest surprise in Big Ten play last season, Bezhanishvili could be ready for a big step this season, Underwood said.

“We saw a very limited Giorgi in terms of ballhandling,’’ Underwood said. “The young man is here at 6 a.m. every morning. He’s getting shots up. He’s a proven shooter that shot really bad percentage, by his standards. Yet we don’t want to forget about Giorgi’s true strength, which is posting up. He’s a ton to handle.’’

Then there’s the thought of playing Bezhanishvili together with Kofi Cockburn, the 7-foot, 300-pounder who has the Illini already buying more backboards.

“He’s a willing listener,’’ said Underwood. “It’s a matter of him picking up what we do and getting through the first month with Fletch, when he’s never really lifted before. It’s an adjustment period. It’s early to throw out too many expectations. It’s nice to see that size and athleticism.

“One of the things we’re excited to see is that duo together.’’

The Italian tour will offer the perfect chance to see if these two can play together, or if they will rotate and share the interior with a smaller power forward.

“That will make Italy pretty meaningful,’’ Underwood said. “We’ll be able to throw those two out there together.’’

Belgian forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk is a 6-7 wing who is another Illini recruit from across the pond. He just graduated last weekend, so he’s not yet arrived. Of course, Underwood gets all goose-bumpy about Verdonk’s athleticism, a body that’s already maturing and skills that allow him to step out to the perimeter. He’s the kind of player who can stretch the floor, a guy that the better teams in the league have on the roster.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing his skill set with that size and how it fits in our system,’’ Underwood said. “That excites us.’’

The Illini need to be ready early. According to CBS Sports hoops analyst Jon Rothstein, the Illini will play at Arizona on the opening weekend of the basketball season.

But it’s still late June, and Underwood is already as excited as Illini fans, who can’t wait for basketball for basketball season to begin.